Category: Homer

An Agoraphobic Abroad (Part 2)

Part II

Troy (I)

Troy (I)

“So tribe on tribe, pouring out of the ships and shelters,
marched across the Scamander plain and the earth shook,
tremendous thunder from under trampling men and horses
drawing into position down the Scamander meadow flats
breaking into flower—men by the thousands, numberless
as the leaves and spears that flower forth in spring.”

The Iliad (Translated by Robert Fagles)

It almost didn’t happen.

I mean, it was that close.

I’d checked into some bus tours to Troy before we left home. I knew there were day trips from Istanbul and they weren’t cheap. But we decided to wait to actually book the Troy excursion until we got to Turkey—I think we held out hope that our hosts would know the best and cheapest method of getting there. In retrospect, maybe not the wisest course of action.

As it turned out, neither of our Istanbul hosts had contacts in the travel industry, so with the help of Sherron’s cell phone (and a good wi-fi connection), I started searching for tour operators that included Troy in their itinerary. There were a few and, as I feared, they turned out to be quite pricey; indeed, too pricey for my tastes. I started pondering the possibility of leaving Turkey without seeing the plain of Scamander and the remnants of the Scaean Gate—I have to say, it didn’t sit well with me.

I read Peggy Albion-Meek’s The Great Adventurer, a young adult re-telling of the story of Odysseus, when I was nine years and was enraptured.

The prolonged siege of Troy figures prominently in the book, the wily King of Ithaca responsible for coming up with the scheme that finally breaks the stalemate. Other famous figures put in appearances and I soon developed a loathing for the haughty Agamemnon, while cheering as the god-like Achilles hacked his way through half the Trojan infantry, displaying a bloodlust that made even the mighty Hector quail before him.

Troy (II)

Troy (II)

Troy, needless to say, holds a special place in my heart. I’d put it right near the top of my “bucket list”. But it seemed like fate was intervening and unless I was willing to pay an arm and a leg, Troy might be out of reach.

Then, a sudden breakthrough.

A communication from one company confirmed a coach was available, quoted a fee that seemed reasonable…was I interested?

Oh, yes.

The mode of conveyance was a comfortable Mercedes mini-bus, extra spacious because there were only about six or seven other people accompanying us (most of them bound for the nearby the Gallipoli battlefield, not Troy). It was a lengthy drive, down the Anatolian coast, and at one point we had to ferry across the Dardanelles to get to Canakkale on the other side, where a different bus was waiting to take us the rest of the way to Troy.

And there it was. And there I was, standing amidst the weathered, crumbling remains of a place I’d dreamed about since childhood. Well…

A peak moment. Who would’ve believed it possible?

Because of the iffy political situation in Turkey (see: previous post), tourists were in short supply and, except for a German documentary film crew, we had the site all to ourselves.

Uran Savas is the most engaging, charming, knowledgeable guide I’ve ever encountered. Uran combines a winning personality with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the history of Troy and its physical environs—he knows every square foot of the place. Uran led me around the extensive ruins, which span thousands or years, each layer revealing insights into the lives or ordinary Trojans and their ruling elites. In all, there were at least ten separate cities built on this site, ten separate eras represented. Uran could point out sections of wall denoting each of these eras, his erudition and quick wit constantly in evidence. Despite the blazing heat, he set a leisurely pace, not hurrying, pausing to point out certain landmarks or patiently respond to my seemingly constant questions.

Sherron hung back, taking pictures, including one of my favourites, where I’m touching a portion of a wall that dates back to Homeric times. That’s a keeper.

As a bonus, Uran introduced me to a good friend, the man who happens to be in charge of the on-going digs at Troy, Dr. Rustem Arslan. He answered a couple of my stammered queries and posed for a picture with us, before hurrying away, back to his duties.

End of a perfect day. Oh, except for that interminable drive back to Istanbul. All and all, it amounted to a time-consuming, wearying interlude—let’s see, we were picked up around 5:30 a.m. and dropped off back in Istanbul shortly after 10:00 p.m. Wow. Time-consuming, indeed.

We left Istanbul the next day, after ten days so confident of our grasp of the city’s commendable public transportation system we travelled to Kemal Ataturk International Airport via cab, ferry, bus and monorail, arriving on time and hardly frazzled at all.

We flew out of Istanbul shortly before 5:00 that afternoon. I realize I’m skipping a lot in this account, due to space constraints (like dealing with the persistent, ingenious carpet salesmen or meeting the remarkable Emin Senyer, a preeminent performer of Karagoz shadow puppet theatre), but that’s unavoidable. We must push on to Prague.

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Prague

Yes, Prague. By reputation, one of the most beautiful cities on the continent. Boasting every modern convenience while, simultaneously, possessing a lengthy, storied past, the region frequently playing a crucial role in 20th century European politics.

One thing we immediately noticed was that it was a lot cooler and drier than Greece and Turkey. Almost like back home.

Prague was the one city both Sherron and I had at the top of our lists when we were planning our proposed Grand Tour of Europe. We felt drawn there, for a variety of reasons. To me, it’s the home of Kafka, Hrabal, Meyrink and the Capek brothers. A veritable hub of surrealism and the macabre and ground zero as far as alchemy and the black arts are concerned.

For my dear, puppet-crazed wife, Prague’s status as one of the world’s hotbeds for hand-carved wooden marionettes, not to mention innovative theatre and film, made it an irresistible destination. And there was one other attraction:

We spent over a week at a small penzion a half-hour from Prague, where Sherron took part in a workshop led by Michaela Bartonova. Michaela has a long and impressive résumé as a puppeteer and master instructor. Her students come from around the world to work with her and learn from her methods. This year’s attendees included participants from Canada (us), Israel, Spain, Hungary. And they were all sweet, wonderful people; we bonded with them, had many great, raucous conversations after each day’s session was over.

While Sherron was off designing and carving her creation (from linden wood, the Czech Republic’s national tree), I kept myself busy by journaling, reading, writing poems and hanging out with Zsolt–whose wife Aggie was taking the workshop for the second year in a row–and their kids, Philip and Heidi. We had a ball together and the week seemed to zip past.

I think the only thing we didn’t manage while we were in Prague was catch a glimpse of Jan Svankmajer, the legendary Czech animator. It would have been delightful to spend an hour or two in his studio or watching him at work on his latest effort, an adaptation of a Karl Capek story that was financed through crowd-sourcing.

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Communist Museum

Visiting Kafka’s grave and the museum in his honor were high points, as was the hour or so we spent in the Communist Museum (more properly titled The Anti-Communist Museum). Trying my first shot of absinthe…guzzling Czech beer…seeing a genuine Toyen painting…

A stop of the Millennium Gallery (not far from the Kafka Museum), introduced me to the work of Jiri Sozansky. Ondrej, a fellow fan of the macabre, showed me a number of prints by Sozansky, briefing me about the artist, a man who deliberately inhabits the far fringes of Czech art; I couldn’t resist bringing one of his pieces home with me. Very disturbing, unnerving stuff; not for all tastes. Search him out, he’s amazing (you’ll find one of his short films here).

What I won’t miss are those wicked, uneven cobblestone streets. For a metropolis renowned for being “walking city”, Prague’s city fathers couldn’t have picked a worse road surface. After the first few days traipsing around, my lower back and hips were in rough shape. Stretching and anti-inflammatories helped, some.

That said, I’ll put up with the cobblestones, endure the natural surliness that seems to be part of the Czech national character, I’ll even forgive the less than thrilling cuisine—

But how do they tolerate the tourists?

Yes, the tourists. Out of the various spots we visited in Europe, they were at their worst in Prague (particularly in “Old Town”). Swarming and pointing and gawping and barking at each other in a dozen different languages and dialects–and you could tell what they were saying always amounted to little more than: “Lookit that, honey, ain’t it neat?” Snapping selfies at every opportunity, imbuing each and every street corner or jutting steeple with significance. I was seated at a small diner and watched as a tubby, rather bookish fellow a few tables away took a picture of himself with his plate of food.

Really?

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Prague (side street)

Selfies at a wall dedicated to the memory of John Lennon. Selfies in Wenceslas Square. Selfies framed in front of one of the innumerable castles or cathedrals…

Urk.

I hate tourists and tried very hard never to act like one. We usually shunned areas where there was a high concentration of idiot foreigners but sometimes they were unavoidable. Streaming down the winding, constricted sidestreets, moving in groups, often consulting handheld gadgets, heads swivelling back and forth, eagerly seeking out the next attraction or point of interest.

Strumpet

Prague, you old whore
coquette of Mitteleuropa
adorned in gothic finery
enduring the rough pleasure
of marauding hordes
secretly derisive of their
admiring gazes
offering your best
most familiar features
while assuring each of them
you’ve never done this before.

Every so often, Sherron and I would consciously try to slow things down, take a moment, seat ourselves on a bench or at an outdoor café and just look around, absorb what we were seeing, the little details that we might revisit later, in recollection. Trying to retain the strongest possible impression of that locale, that instant in time.

Colorado-Mansfeld Palace (Prague)

Colloredo-Mansfeld Palace (Prague)

Who knew if we’d be able to manage another trip of that magnitude? Was it likely, given our financial situation? And maybe that’s why for us it was never about rushing around, patronizing all the usual tourist traps, checking them off our list and then moving on. Never stopping to reflect, experiencing Europe on the fly, through the window of a car or bus, doing our level best not to interact too much with the locals…

Interact we did, chatting with folks from every walk of life, people who quite often weren’t shy about sharing their views with us, once they realized they had an attentive, appreciative audience. We tried to be open, receptive, patient…and were rewarded with some memorable encounters and exchanges. Mustafa, one of our guides on the bus to Troy, so passionate and knowledgeable about Middle Eastern history, comes to mind; and what about Anke and Dick, Alex and Suzanne, Michaela and Ralph and Uran and Zsolt and Aggie and Emin and Ali and Eva and so many others. They shared their stories with us, welcomed us into their lives and homes, offering fresh perspectives, opinions that often didn’t jibe with what we were hearing back home.

That is the greatest benefit of traveling to a distant land and no virtual environment, no documentary can come close to emulating the experience of physically being there, at Mycenae or Epidaurus or Troy…or even buying bottled water from a cheerful vendor not far from Galata Tower.

Feeling the ground beneath your feet, hot sun directly overhead, the welcome chill of the plastic bottle against your skin. Knowing this is real, an authentic moment.

Turning to each other, clasping hands, conscious of the adjacent funicular tracks. The vendor wants to know where we’re from.

“Canada?” He grins. “Very far. Welcome! Welcome!”

Bidding us good day and waving once we’re underway, another smiling face, another encounter to add to our scrapbook, situated alongside brochures, ticket stubs and a smooth, streaked pebble collected from the beach at Kiveri.

Mementos, when photographs no longer suffice.

The final two lines of my travel journal, composed upon our return to Canada:

“For a time, I was able to forget who I was, see the world through young and innocent eyes. What do you call that, except a blessing?”

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Globe Book Store (Prague)

2015: A Banner Year

DSC007142015 marks my 30th anniversary as a professional author and 25th as an independent publisher.

That kind of longevity, in any vocation, is pretty rare, but when it comes to the arts? Writing? Are you kidding? It either shows tremendous faith, an overweening ego…or the simple acknowledgement that there’s nothing else I’m any good at. Or all of the above.

Over the past three decades, I’ve witnessed a lot of changes in terms of technology, trends, the way the publishing business is run. Hell, I’m so old, I can recall a time when it wasn’t embarrassing to call yourself a horror writer and John Updike and Ray Carver represented the high bar in terms of American literature. Jesus, where’s my cane and adult diapers?

In that interval, I’ve seen ’em come and I’ve seen ’em go. One-hit wonders, lighting up the sky like a rogue comet and then exploding, leaving not the slightest trace of their passing. The darlings of the critics and cultural poobahs, earnest scribblers telling their very personal stories of suffering and courage and redemption, seeking applause and acclamation the way a junkie probes for a fresh vein. Their offerings winning all the literary prizes, earning highly coveted media attention, getting their names in lights. Hooray!

Except…where are they now?

I won’t name names (that would be cruel) but how many highly touted scribblers have popped up during my 30-year tenure, sucked up some attention (and sometimes a considerable amount of money) and then faded away? Check out the prize lists since 1985—Pulitzers and Bookers and GGs and Gillers, right down to the regional level: how many of those names are still prominent today, still producing quality work?

Exactly. I’d have to use a quantum calculator to determine the number of “bold new talents” and “exciting voices” that have come down the pike in my professional lifetime. It’s an annual rite, like checking to see if Wiarton Willy can spot his shadow. Never mind that the vast majority of the “stories” these bright, young things are telling are very much their own: fictionalized accounts of their journals and diaries, their pathetic lives laid bare. A love affair gone bad, tender hearts cruelly broken; often one detects a faint whiff of revenge. The only problem is, when you write solely about yourself, sooner or later the material grows stale…or runs out all together.

Which is why the latest “next Margaret Atwood” or “next ______” (your favorite literary icon here) invariably lasts one or two books and is never heard from again.

I’m reminded of the old song that goes: It don’t mean a thing/’til you prove it all night.

True, I think, for any worthwhile endeavor.

The creative life demands a special kind of courage and commitment—it requires a soul-defining leap of faith because there’s no guarantee you’ll be successful, very little chance of your work achieving posterity. Many superb artists have died broke and unknown.

But those who are truly chosen don’t give a whit for fame and fortune, they create for the sheer pleasure of knowing that they are working without restrictions or outside expectations, designing and shaping their efforts to their own specifications and aesthetic purposes. They’re not trying to emulate someone else or jump on a popular bandwagon. Their visions may be personal, unprecedented, bizarre (by popular standards), but there’s a shining brilliance to them, helping them achieve a universality that makes them accessible to people of vastly different geographies, even epochs.

Think Homer. Sophocles. Poe. Baudelaire. Kafka. Picabia.

Authors who defy convention, risk penury, disapprobation, despair.

Picture 14Vasili Grossman and Friedrich Reck, writing in the face of discovery, imprisonment, death.

And yet they persevered.

So you’ve written a clever poem, a halfway decent short story, posted it on your blog. Six people have “Liked” it. Good for you.

What next?

Are you prepared to sit down tomorrow and the next day and the day after that…until your allotment of days run out? Writing and re-writing, driving yourself to distraction trying to achieve quality, well-crafted prose. The search for improvement, perfection never ceases. I’ll testify to that.

I’ve been in this biz a long time, much longer than most, and it’s still hard, still a challenge every day to summon the courage to walk into my office, plunk myself down and commence work on my latest writing project. As I’ve gotten older, my standards have risen and so the act of composition has become even more challenging and immersive than it was when I first started out. In other words, it doesn’t get easier, kids, it gets harder.

Dreaming about writing doesn’t get you there, promising yourself that you’ll start something serious in November, when National Novel Writing Month rolls around, won’t cut it either. If you’re a writer, a real writer, you can’t wait. As much as the chore of writing depresses and intimidates you, you can’t resist reaching for a pen and putting something down on paper. Anything to fill that blank page, defeating the white silence. Only then is there a sense of fulfillment, completion, our purpose for existing realized.

How does that gibe with your experience?

Are you a dabbler? A hobbyist? A wannabe?

Or do you have the courage to take a great leap…without the slightest notion or concern for what awaits you far below?

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2007: The Year in Review

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It’s an annual ritual, dating back more than two decades.

Right after Christmas I sit down and take stock of the past year, assaying it in terms of the quality and quantity of work I’ve composed, what I feel I accomplished and where I fell short. This assessment is rarely kind: I can be awfully hard on myself. On that point, I’m not alone:

“It is now sixteen years since my first book was published and about twenty-one years since I started publishing articles in magazines…There has literally been not one day in which I did not feel that I was idling, that I was behind with the current job, and that my total output was miserably small. Even at the periods when I was working ten hours a day on a book, or turning out four or five articles a week, I have never been able to get away from this neurotic feeling.”

orwelljpeg.jpgGeorge Orwell wrote those words in a notebook he kept during the last year of his life. His heroic work ethic unquestionably contributed to his early demise; this fact is not lost on me. You can literally write yourself to death.

Cheery thought, innit?

But I’m not going to let my neuroses get in the way of celebrating a productive and creative year. Not me. No, sirree. I mean, I should be pleased with what I accomplished and a fair summary of 2007 would probably go something like this:

It was, to my mind, a year of retrenchment and learning. Retrenchment in that I finished a couple of longstanding projects and, re: the latter, thanks to my blog I got a real education as to the scope and limits of technology and came to a clearer understanding of the possibilities inherent in cyberspace.

I get the sense that during this past year I was tooling up, doing my utmost to marshal and focus my skills, honing them to razor sharpness.

Preparing for things to come…

The high points:

  • In the early part of 2007 I completed final edits on Voiceworks. It’s a thin volume (71 pages), made up of 50 or 60 of my favorite monologues and short, spoken word pieces. The material is drawn from the past twenty years and includes offerings like “Cranes” and “A.I.” and a number of monologues from The Break (my one-act play).
  • I finally put the finishing touches on my Redbook poetry collection (so named because of the red notebook I scribble the first drafts into). Sherron helped me paste it onto the background I wanted and it looks great. This one took a mere decade to whittle and pare into shape.
  • Revised two older stories, fleshing them out and coming up with luvly new versions of “Adult Children” and “Matriarchy”. I especially treasure the latter and was pleased when CBC Radio producer Kelley Jo Burke picked it up for broadcast on “Gallery” (air date: October 27, 2007).
  • Sewed up the movie deal for “Kept”, acting as my own agent and going through about twenty drafts of the contract with the increasingly frustrated producers and screenwriter. Used the Writers Guild of America’s model contract to help me restrict the option period, secure compensation for sequels and remakes, protect literary rights, etc. A time-consuming, frustrating, annoying, nerve-wracking process but it got done and now we’ll see what happens.

  • I revised a few of the short stories from my venerable (1990) short story collection Sex & Other Acts of the Imagination. It gave me the chance to tighten up the prose and fix the last line of “The Cattletruck”, which never seemed right to me. The new versions are leaner, tighter, superior to the originals. Worth the weeks of murderous edits.

  • In March, I finally heeded Sherron’s prompting and allowed her set up this blog. Beautiful Desolation. One of the smartest decisions I ever made. Started out as an experiment, a lark. And then it grew and grew as I added rants, commentaries, reviews, loaded on stories that hadn’t seen the light of day for years, an excerpt from the best unpublished novel kicking around (So Dark the Night). Presently, we find ourselves victims of our own success. Far more hits than we expected, people expecting new content on a regular basis—sheesh. So we’ve expanded the site and intend to utilize new publish on demand and podcasting technologies to…well, there are big plans afoot and we’ll leave it there. Stay tuned.

  • But the absolute best thing to happen (writing-wise) in 2007 was undoubtedly finally summoning up the nerve to commence work on a longer effort, my novella “Of the Night”. Took every ounce of courage and willpower I had to stick with it but I did (thank you, Creator). You’ll be hearing more about this one in the months to come. Sherron loved the draft I gave her just before Christmas and I see big things ahead for this 160-page, 40,000 word beauty.

* * * * * *

filesjpeg.jpgWhen I actually list what I’ve done in the past 365 days, at first blush it seems like a pretty significant amount of work. What do you expect, I write every day, often failing to pace myself, working overtime to the detriment of my fingers, shoulders and back (to say nothing of my mental state).

But when I stack myself up against some of the truly prolific writers out there, I’m a time-waster, a lazy, itinerant asshole. Look at the sheer amount of titles folks like L.E. Modesitt, Kevin Anderson, Timothy Zahn or Robert Jordan can thrash out. These guys have bibliographies that would choke a fucking stegosaurus. How do they do it? I’m not talking about the quality of the work, I mean how can they physically produce that amount of prose, year after year? How can they put out so many pages a day when I can manage only a fraction of that while maintaining a schedule that sucks my strength down to the last dregs? How? How? How?

“What we write with difficulty is written with more care, engraves itself more deeply…”

-Joseph Joubert

Well, all right, granted, there’s that. The guys I just mentioned aren’t exactly literary stylists, straining to compose brilliant sentences, so lyrical they practically serenade you from the page. They’re hacks and their readers have minimum expectations when it comes to their work.

vollmannjpeg.jpgBut what about authors like Anthony Burgess, Joyce Carol Oates and William T. Vollmann? They produce(d) a flood of pages every year and, for the most part, have secured their literary reputations and earned the highest awards in the land. Hugo, Balzac, Stendhal, Dumas pere et fils—huge canons, literary immortals.

Fuckers.

It baffles me. Are they that much smarter, more efficient, better focussed than I am? While I struggle and grope for words, does the prose flow from their hands, whole chapters emerging fully formed, committed to the page with hardly a correction? Didn’t I read somewhere that Kevin Anderson dictates most of his books into a tape recorder and has them transcribed later?

My mind reels at the thought. If I did the same thing, the best I would likely manage would be a few constipated groans and a string of scatological profanities. And that’s on a good day…

I know it’s ridiculous to draw parallels between my career and that of other authors—everyone is unique, each of us a prisoner of psychology, circumstance and other factors harder to label and categorize. But the whole physical aspect fascinates me—I completed a good draft of my novella in about 3 1/2 months. I worked on that novel from the first week of September until Christmas, taking only 2 days off for Thanksgiving. 160 pages. Some of these fantasy fucks can excrete the equivalent over a long weekend. Knock out a novelization in a month or six weeks to help pay the rent….

(Long, drawn out sigh.)

despairjpeg.jpgI said I wouldn’t do this, didn’t I? Promised I was going to concentrate on the positive and not get bogged down in self-loathing.

But you knew me better than that…

I know…I’ll close off my last posting of 2007 by listing the things I’m grateful for, the people who remind me life is worth living and some of the stuff that redeems my boring and uneventful existence:

God. Yup, I’m serious. I am inspired and sustained and strengthened by the knowledge that my life, my work is serving the aims of a conscious, enigmatic Creator, an entity encompassing every square nanometer of our universe and a similar proportion of the other 10 dimensions currently thought to exist. So there.

Family. Couldn’t do it without you. Sher, boys, thanks for everything.

Friends. The people who care for me despite my long silences and busy schedule, who stick around despite my inattentiveness, who persist in believing in me against all evidence to the contrary.

Writing. Obvious, huh? But writing isn’t only about putting words on paper; it’s also prayer. It’s when I feel closest to my Creator—often, when my talent and resolve falter, something takes control and gets me back on track again. How many times have a looked up from a paragraph in wonder, not remembering having composed it? Those are the moments I live and pine for…

hardyjpeg.jpgBooks. I’ve repeatedly insisted the printed word saved my life and I mean it. God bless you Arthur Conan Doyle and Philip K. Dick and L. Frank Baum and William S. Burroughs and Cormac McCarthy and Homer and Franklyn W. Dixon…

Music. Soothes this savage beast like nothing else. Electronica, soundtracks, alternative, metal…and Glen Campbell singing “Wichita Lineman”.

Movies. Not as many as the old days, just not enough time. But doing my best to see some of the classics I’ve missed, discovering for myself the genius and vision of artists like F.W. Murnau, Tati, Georges Henri Clouzot and Val Lewton…

Sports. Every Saturday night (from September to June) finds me in front of the TV set, watching the nationally broadcast hockey game (a rite going back about, oh, 40 years or so). Whenever I can, I try to squeeze a few quarters of a CFL football game in between marathon revision sessions. I’m a frustrated athlete, if I died and could be reborn as anyone, it would be Joe Montana, two minutes left in the game, the ’Niners on our own ten yard line…

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Radio. Old tyme radio dramas, CBC documentaries and features, BBC World Service…the possibilities nearly endless since we started piping in high speed internet. Radio Moscow anyone? NPR…

Art. Blame Sherron for this one too—every so often words fail me and only a visual image will suffice. Collage, acrylic paint, short films…over the past few years I’ve dabbled in just about everything. Sher’s a great teacher in that she does the best she can despite her student’s ineptitude.

Canada. I really do live in the best country in the world. I bag about the stupid cultural bureaucrats and the mediocrity I see all around me…but, cripes, I’m free to speak my mind, there’s nobody strapping a bomb to his ass and hopping on a bus behind me, nobody telling me what to think or say…my home and native land. I despair for it sometimes but I wouldn’t trade citizenship with anyone, anywhere.

You. Didn’t think I’d leave that out, did you? If you’re a repeat visitor or if this is the first time you’ve popped by—don’t matter, I’m grateful to you for seeking me out. The amount of “hits” this year surprised me and convinced me that there’s a potential audience out there, smart folk with an appreciation for good writing, good company and who appreciate (or, at least, tolerate) a certain amount of hyperbole and/or satire. Hang around because there’s more good stuff coming in 2008. A change in format, lots of new material including—

Sorry, I’m getting ahead of myself again. But I’m really excited about what the next year will bring. I have a strong hunch 2008 is gonna be a good one.

And I sincerely hope it’s the same for you.

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Burning Moonlight (Selected Readings)

***Reviews of new books by Chuck Palahniuk, Haruki Murakami, Alessandro Baricco & James Othmer ***

fut2.jpegThe Futurist
by James P. Othmer
(Anchor Canada; PB; $19.95)

Amazon.com            Random House

Meet J.P. Yates, noted prognosticator and forecaster of things to come. His presence at conferences and corporate retreats is de rigueur, his opinions on THE NEXT BIG THING much sought after by world leaders and gilded CEO’s. But Yates, as our story begins, is suffering a crisis of faith: he no longer believes the future can be predicted and he’s tired of all the moral and philosophical compromises he’s been making in order to secure his lofty position and cozy lifestyle.

Not only that, but his fiancé has just dumped him. And. He. Never. Saw. It. Coming. A futurist who’s, yes, short-sighted. From the moment Yates opens the “Dear John” letter on the plane, everything starts to fall apart. A fierce bout of boozing leads to a rambling, incendiary speech before the well-heeled and well-connected in South Africa. It’s an attempt to commit professional suicide and it nearly succeeds. The next thing he knows, he’s getting stomped in his hotel room, shunned by colleagues and approached by two scary operators who claim to represent American corporate interests. Their names are, get this, Johnson and Johnson.

Mr. Othmer misses few opportunities to lampoon and skewer Western culture and its metastacizing tendencies. Nothing is too sacred and the level of cynicism is refreshing. In a not so subtle swipe at entities like the Gates Foundation, one of Mr. Othmer’s characters observes:

“(These) billionaires make me sick. They think now that they’re rich, they can satisfy their egos, alleviate their guilt, by thinking their accidental windfall somehow means they’re geniuses, cosmically ordained and therefore eminently qualified to solve the world’s problems—AIDS, loose nukes, illiteracy. They’re delusional enough to think that they matter more than others in a larger sense. They think, Now that I’ve made billions on a search engine that can locate highly specialized subgenres of kiddie porn at thrice the speed of light, I’m going to teach the world to read. When in truth they’re rewriting history to say that their original business models, the ones that made them obscenely rich, were not driven by greed and hubris but by some larger calling to transform the world.”

Zang. Somewhere Joseph Heller, Hunter S. Thompson, Kurt Vonnegut and H.L. Mencken are clapping and whistling in approval.

Yates can no longer serve the interests of consumerism and has no desire to advance the cause of the type of people the Johnsons work for. He wants out of the rat race, frustrated by his “lack of ability or desire to change the world”. But the Johnsons aren’t easily dissuaded and soon Yates finds himself jetting around the globe on some obscure mission for his spymasters, having close encounters with an Inuit fish-woman in Greenland and a fascistic telecom king on his island hideaway in Fiji. He witnesses a car-bombing in Milan and narrowly escapes death in the Middle East.

The Futurist is well-paced, cleverly scripted, as bitter as poisoned water. Mr. Othmer is a skilled and fearless author. Yates, despite his attendant flaws and weaknesses, is an endearing and credible creation. He truly wants to be decent, the kind of person his sturdy, honest father would respect. At its core, the novel really represents his pursuit of happiness, a calm, clear refuge in the eye of a monster hurricane, primal forces rushing safely by.

We look to the future for redemption, often forgetting to register the sins we’re accumulating here, now, acts of malice and negligence that make the notion of salvation seem so attractive…and so fleeting.


rant.jpgRant: An Oral Biography of Rant Casey
by Chuck Palahniuk
(Doubleday Canada; Hardcover; $32.95)

Amazon.com       Random House

Chuck Palahniuk has made a career out of fearlessly going where no one has dared or wanted to go before. In his best novels—Fight Club, Choke and Lullaby—he traverses these dark countries with bravado and imaginative leaps that are truly admirable. His nonfiction essays, collected in Stranger Than Fiction, reveal a man who is not afraid of casting that same unsparing glance at the real world and the places he comes from.

Rant, his latest novel, is composed of reminiscences and testimonials from over fifty individuals, each of them adding a piece to the puzzle that was Rant Casey. The opening line is a killer: “Like most people, I didn’t meet and talk to Rant Casey until after he was dead”. The men and women offering their views are drawn from every period of Rant’s life and provide conflicting versions of events. Some prove to be unreliable, self-serving narrators, if not outright liars. Then there are those who have formed a kind of latterday cult, with Rant Casey playing the role of unlikely savior. Collectively these people provide a tantalizing, if inconsistent, portrait of a very unique specimen of humanity:

-as a child Rant loved to stick his hand into any hole he could find and hope something would bite him
-the young rascal also concocted a money-laundering scheme using stashes of found coins and enlisting the help of…the tooth fairy
-he became infected with a virulent form of rabies and knowingly, enthusiastically spread the contagion to others
-at some point he stumbled across a method of defeating the “grandfather paradox’, learned how to travel in time and, oh yeah, possibly achieved immortality

In short, this Rant Casey fella was one unusual hombre.

Rant is, at times, compelling and chilling, depicting a plausible, unsettling view of the near future, a society where from infancy people are fitted with ports to “boost” sensory experiences recorded by others. It is a decidedly dystopian world where curfews divide “nighttimers” and “daytimers” and a segment of the population “tag” (crash) vehicles to get their kicks. It is a vision that will strike a resonant cord with fans of David Cronenberg, J.G. Ballard and, possibly, William Gibson.

But the final section of the book is confusing as Rant’s time travel scheme is debated and fleshed out by his acolytes and detractors. In a book so grounded in tactile sensations and spasms of gritty realism, the notion seems far-fetched and out of place. I also think that the voices of those testifying aren’t distinctive enough, they should be more dissimilar in cadence, tone and word choice. As a result they are often indistinguishable and that gives the book a one-dimensional feel.

Mr. Palahniuk is an writer of unquestionable skill and originality, his body of work provides ample evidence of his twisted talent. But in his last two efforts in particular, Rant and Haunted, we see a man trying perhaps a bit too hard to top himself. In the case of Haunted, he spared no detail, presenting us with scenes of graphic carnage and depravity that, ultimately, undermined the author’s best intentions. Rant is a creation of a different order and, while nowhere near as intense, it lacks a central core. It is a conceit, a concept rather than a fully-fledged novel.

The problem may lie with the format he has chosen. An account that features over fifty characters, offering a myriad of opinions and speculations, is bound to be unfocussed, lacking coherence. While no one expects a Chuck Palahniuk novel to boast a conventional narrative, peopled by folks we interact with every day, we do expect a good, entertaining read. Rant doesn’t fit the bill. As an exercise it is of interest but as a book it is a cold, uninvolving reading experience.


bar.jpegAn Iliad
by Alessandro Baricco
Translated by Ann Goldstein
(Alfred Knopf; Hardcover; $28.00)

Amazon.com          Knopf 

How dare Alessandro Baricco. The nerve of the man.

He has taken an acknowledged world classic and, gulp, tampered with it. Shortened it, hacked it to pieces. Cut out anything to do with the gods, pared scenes down, added narrative subjectivity and, worst of all, included additional material.

But despite his abominable behavior, this annoying display of chutzpah, Mr. Baricco’s Iliad works. Not always, there are modernistic interjections that annoy, as when Odysseus pipes up during one exchange: “We’ll let him go and when he gets closer we’ll jump him, all right?” (Pg. 67). How much of this is attributable to Mr. Baricco and how much of the fault lies with his English translator is debatable. Robert Fagles, my favourite translator of Homer, has been taken to task for committing similar sins. But the source material is so strong, the power of Homer’s original vision so sweeping and compelling that even this condensed, tarted up version draws the reader in and holds their attention to the last page.

Dividing the book into sections, each narrated in the first person by one of the principals was a risky move but it does have its merits. The characters, their motivations, strengths and weaknesses assume a more solid shape, shedding some of their mythical status. Odysseus, Priam, Agamemnon, Hector and Achilles are humanised, rendered more familiar to modern eyes and ears. Deleting the gods and emphasizing the human nature of the conflict imparts more emotion and real blood to the battle scenes.

Alessandro Baricco, it must be said, has his detractors. Many consider him a poseur, his works derivative or (tut tut) self-consciously “artsy”. I am familiar with him mainly because of his 2003 collaboration with the French musical duo Air. “City Reading” was a spoken word album (the translation, again by Ms. Goldstein, printed in the accompanying liner notes) set to music. It was a Western, a classic revenge fable with a twist ending.

I enjoyed “City Reading” and, despite some quibbles, I find much to praise in An Iliad. The end notes for the book are illustrative, as when Mr. Baricco elaborates on why Homer’s account of the siege of Troy retains its relevance to modern readers:

“The beauty of war…expresses its centrality in human experience, conveys the idea that there is nothing else, in human experience, that enables one to truly exist. What the Iliad perhaps suggests is that pacifism, today, must not forget or deny that beauty, as if it had never existed. To say and to teach that war is hell and that’s all is a damaging lie. Although it sounds terrible, we must remember that war is hell—but beautiful. Men have always thrown themselves into it, drawn like moths to the fatal light of the flame. There is no fear, or horror of themselves, that has succeeded in keeping them from the flame, because in it they find the only possible recompense for the shadows of life. For this reason, today, the task of a true pacifism should not be to demonize war excessively so much as to understand that only when we are capable of another kind of beauty will we be able to do without what war has always offered us.”

Poseur? Maybe. But he makes an excellent point, don’t you think?


murak1.jpegAfter Dark
by Haruki Murakami
Translated by Jay Rubin

(Bond Street Books; Hardcover; $27.95)

Amazon.com        Random House 

A rather modest offering from Haruki Murakami, nowhere near as metaphysical, surreal or genre-bending as most of his other efforts. Which is not to say After Dark isn’t an agreeable and thoroughly literate tale, it just doesn’t have the scope and virtuoso stylings of previous novels like The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle or, most recently, Kafka On The Shore.

Told in interlocking narratives, After Dark details one late fall night in Tokyo, as seen through the eyes of a variety of characters, some likable, others exhibiting sociopathic or criminal tendencies. Occasionally, Mr. Murakami employs a brilliant point of view shift where we float above the action like an invisible, omnipotent camera—it allows a cinematic overview, a device Mr. Murakami uses sparingly but to good effect.

There is something magical going on in Tokyo on this particular evening and the author gives us a hint when he writes that some locations and enchanted hours “open secret entries into darkness in the interval between midnight and the time the sky grows light. None of our principles have any effect there. No one can predict when or where such abysses will swallow people, or where they will spit them out” (pg. 168).

Ari Asai had slipped into one such dark place. One day she announces to her family that she is going to sleep and doesn’t appear to wake for two months. Her family holds out slender hope for her eventual recovery and the reconcliation her younger sister tries to initiate in the closing pages of the book is a moving scene. But before she climbs into bed with her ailing sister, nineteen year old Mari Asai traverses midnight streets, experiencing aspects of life previously denied her. She visits a “love hotel” and gets to know some of its denizens, rekindles a relationship with an aspiring jazz musician and has a brush with the Japanese underworld.

This is modern myth-making, possessing “equal levels of sorcery and functionality. It has been handed down from ancient times with darkness and sent back from the future with light” (pg. 49).

Mr. Murakami, like German auteur Rainer Werner Fassbinder, can take a tale that is essentially a melodrama and infuse it with depth and textures that enable a rather simple story to transcend sentimentality and treacle. While the conclusion of After Dark is affirming, it does not tie up every loose end, resolve all the story threads or punish the guilty. That is to his credit.

After Dark is an excellent introduction to the work of this Japanese master and will undoubtedly lead astute readers to more challenging—and rewarding–efforts in his canon. It is not as intellectually demanding or menacing as some of his darker, more substantive efforts. Its charm is undeniable, however, and while it casts a brighter, cheerier light than many of his other works, it also presents an interesting contrast and shows Mr. Murakami to be an author of many moods and depths. So much the better.