Monday 28 May 2012

Patrick DeWitt's "The Sisters Brothers" and the Pleasure of Fat-Free Psychopathy

Now the water was boiled and he poured us each a cup of coffee, the taste of which was so poor it actually startled me, and it took my every bit of politeness not to spit the liquid out. Dredging my finger along the bottom of the cup, I brought up a mound of grit. I smelled and then licked this and identified it as dirt… my cup held earth and hot water, nothing more. I believe the man, through some lonely prospector mania, had begun brewing dirt and tricking himself into believing it was coffee. I had a mind to broach the subject with him but he was so pleased to be sharing, and I did not want to upset his pride.

In The Sisters Brothers, Patrick DeWitt tells the story of Eli and Charlie Sisters, two infamous assassins who have received orders to travel to San Francisco and murder an elusive and crafty prospector named Herman Kermit Warm. From the outset, the book contains numerous elements that invite comparison to Harold Pinter’s play, "The Dumb Waiter," or Martin McDonagh’s film, In Bruges. Despite the fact that the book is set in the Wild West of the 1850s, the two titular outlaws speak in dialogue so unbelievably formal that it borders upon a theatre of the absurd. In an additional parallel to the two other mentioned works, the brothers receive their orders from a mysterious, seemingly omnipotent figure known as The Commodore. This phantom presence communicates only with elder brother Charlie, leaving the younger and more portly Eli (the book’s narrator) constantly feeling like he’s out of the loop. The Pinteresque tone of this story is perhaps best exemplified in the following snippet of dialogue, in which Eli learns (from Charlie) that instead of the usual 50/50 split, Charlie has been appointed “lead man” for their next assignment:

‘Who says so?’
            ‘Commodore says so.’
            I drank my brandy. ‘What does it mean?’
            ‘It means I am in charge.’
            ‘What’s it mean about money?’
            ‘More for me.’
            ‘My money, I mean. Same as before?’
            ‘It’s less for you.’
            ‘I don’t see the sense in it.’
            ‘Commodore says there wouldn’t have been the problems with the last job if there had been a lead man.’
            ‘It doesn’t make sense.’
            ‘Well, it does.’

As we find in this passage, DeWitt always keeps his narrative fat-free. There are few if any unnecessary words, and when he establishes an exchange of dialogue between Eli and Charlie, DeWitt simply pushes the pendulum once and steps away, letting the back-and-forth movement of dialogue occur naturally rather than trying to intervene with an annoying succession of “he said”s and “he uttered”s. [Shudder].

Throughout this text, DeWitt’s strongest asset is his mastery of the tone, not only through the strangely stilted dialogue, but through his deadpan humour and casual treatment of psychopathy. You know that you should feel more horrified by this book’s countless scenes of violence, but you don’t. Instead, you laugh when Charlie and Eli rob a dentist at knife-point because they have discovered that Novocain will allow them to take a punch to the face without feeling pain (something of great potential value for two men who regularly engage in saloon fights). Amidst the cold formality of the book’s dialogue and blunt depiction of violence, however, there is something more at work than your garden variety dark humour. Human suffering is treated as though it were not a cold fact, but something not quite real, with a tone of sympathetic agnosticism that can be even more disquieting than the grave chaos embodied by a figure like Cormac McCarthy’s Anton Sigur.

Apart from these heady concerns, the book’s episodic structure and action-packed plot makes it a very entertaining read. I would also like to give special recognition to Dan Stiles for his wonderfully innovative and striking cover design, which magically drew my hand toward this book the moment I saw it sitting on the “Staff Picks” shelf at Chapters. 

Tuesday 8 May 2012

Junot Díaz's "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao": The Pleasure of a Unique Voice (That isn't Used as a Crutch)

“They say it came first from Africa, carried in the screams of the enslaved; that it was the death bane of the Tainos, uttered just as one world perished and another began; that it was a demon drawn into Creation through the nightmare door that was cracked open in the Antilles. Fukú americanus, or more colloquially, fukú—generally a curse or doom of some kind; specifically the Curse and the Doom of the New World.”

This passage opens The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and it refers to a centuries-spanning curse that has fixed the destiny of this book’s protagonist, Oscar de Leon, a Dominican man-child living with his mother in Paterson, New Jersey. At first, this passage seems to issue from an omniscient narrator, but as the reader later discovers, the narrator of this text is in fact Yunior de Las Casas, a former college roommate of Oscar’s and former boyfriend of Oscar’s sister, Lola. As Yunior tells us, Oscar was once an attractive young boy with multiple girlfriends. But the moment puberty struck him, he swelled into a morbidly obese, acne-encrusted, socially inept nerd:

“Oscar was a social introvert who trembled with fear during gym class and watched nerd British shows like Doctor Who and Blake’s 7, and could tell you the difference between a Veritech fighter and a Zentraedi walker, and he used a lot of huge-sounding nerd words like indefatigable and ubiquitous when talking to n[—]s who would barely graduate from high school […] His adolescent nerdiness vaporizing any iota of a chance he had for young love.”

That said, this book not only tells the story of Oscar de Leon, but also recounts and comments upon the struggles of his mother and grandparents, who lived in the Dominican Republic under the dictator Rafael Trujillo in the 1930s, 40s, and early 50s. 

For all of this book's wondrous qualities, it is largely the tone of its first-person narrator, Yunior de Las Casas, that gives this book its magic. Yunior’s constant mixture of formal prose and expletives (both Spanish and English), along with his brute commentary and extensive footnotes, makes for an extremely charismatic and original voice. Further, his sense of humour and latent nerdery lead him to frame his storytelling through constant allusion to comic books, fantasy and science fiction novels, and role-playing games, artifacts of North American culture that take on a new life when filtered through the language of Dominican diaspora.

This incredible voice comes across as a virtuoso performance on Díaz’s part, but when one discovers that the author developed the character of Yunior in numerous short stories published prior to Oscar Wao, one appreciates how much hard work went into the creation of such a charming (albeit sometimes dastardly) narrator. What is perhaps most important about the tone of Oscar Wao is that Díaz does not use it as a crutch to prop up a boring plot and wooden secondary characters (I’m looking at you, Aravind Adiga). The book develops its primary settings of Paterson, New Jersey and the Dominican Republic with strong, meaningful details that Díaz has gathered from first-hand experience. It also branches off from its primary narrator to develop numerous characters with arresting intimacy. Finally, it easily contains enough passion, violence, buried anguish, and laugh-out-loud humour to keep readers riveted from beginning to end. It is for these reasons that I strongly recommend this book, but not half as strongly as the book is able to recommend itself:

“Beli had the inchoate longings of nearly every adolescent escapist, of an entire generation, but I ask you: So fucking what? No amount of wishful thinking was changing the cold hard fact that she was a teenage girl living in the Dominican Republic of Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina, the Dictatingest Dictator who ever Dictated. This was a country, a society, that had been designed to be virtually escape-proof. Alcatraz of the Antilles. There weren’t any Houdini holes in that Plátano Curtain.”

Damn, that’s good writing.

Tuesday 1 May 2012

Michael Crummey's "Galore": When "Ulysses" and "One Hundred Years of Solitude" Come to Outport Newfoundland

“On the eve of the Feast of the Epiphany he fell in with a group of mummers that included Horse Chops, a man covered in a blanket, a wooden horse’s head on a stick before him. The eyes were painted at either side of the head, one black and one blue, the jaws of the horse driven through with nails for teeth and tied with leather strings so they snocked together. At every stop a mummer wearing a crown of spruce boughs chose one member of the household as a victim, asking Horse Chops the most embarrassing questions he could dream up. No subject was too lewd or personal, no question was taboo. Secret loves and affairs, unpaid debts, illegitimate children, ongoing family arguments, sins buried and unconfessed, all were fair game.”

Before I go any further, I’d just like to say one thing: Michael Crummey’s Galore is my all-time favourite novel. Whatever the hell is in second place is not close.

With that said, Galore unfolds in the fictional Newfoundland outport of Paradise Deep, a place so isolated from the rest of the world that readers cannot even tell what century the book is set in until its first hundred pages have passed. The story opens with a depiction of Paradise Deep’s inhabitants rushing from their homes with knives and axes to hack whatever meat they can from a whale that has beached itself. When they slice the leviathan open, however, the stinking, pale body of a man falls onto the wet sand. Young Mary Tryphena watches as her grandmother disobeys the town’s richest man, King-Me Sellers (named so because no one is permitted to beat him at checkers), and orders the townspeople to give the body a proper burial. Before they can move the body, however, the man miraculously recovers consciousness. He cannot speak a word, and he is permeated by a fishy stench that does not leave him for the rest of his life. But his appearance in Paradise Deep sparks a massive chain of events that includes an exorcism by a defrocked priest, the casting of a family curse, and a visit from a mountebank politician with a damning secret.

With Galore, Crummey has given Newfoundland the kind of novel it truly deserves. He creates a world defined by the cross-pollination of Christian dogma, pagan superstition, and local legend. His use of the magic realist genre allows Galore to shoulder the full weight of Newfoundland's folk traditions while weaving these traditions into the fabric of its characters’ daily lives, much like Gabriel Garcia Màrquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (minus the Newfoundland part). In this text, there is no discernible distinction between characters, setting, plot, and dialogue. The setting is a character in itself, and countless characters form part of the setting. The plot feels as though it could not have taken place anywhere else in the world, and it is with this accomplishment in mind that the Globe and Mail’s Steven Galloway has noted that Galore strikes the reader as a “folkloric sum of Newfoundland.” The novel’s prose is so musical and tactile that it can rival James Joyce’s Ulysses at times, particularly when it indulges Crummey’s oral fascination with the ever-sensual sea:

“They’d scaled the whale’s back to drive a stake with a maul, hoping to strike some vital organ, and managed to set it bleeding steadily. They saw nothing for it then but to wait for God to do His work and they sat with their splitting knives and fish prongs, with their dip nets and axes and saws and barrels. The wind was razor sharp and Mary Typhena lost all feeling in her hands and feet and her little arse went dunch on the sand while the whale expired in imperceptible increments. Jabez Trim waded out at intervals to prod at the fat saucer of an eye and report back on God’s progress.”

In addition to the interweaving of myth and reality, it is Crummey’s use of sex scenes that makes his book such a compelling read. His writing reminds us that when it comes to eroticism, literature still offers something that other media like television and cinema just can’t reproduce. In comparison, there is still something private and deliciously clandestine about reading. There are scenes in Galore that could fog up your bathroom mirror, but you could read them in a coffee shop and no one would be the wiser. The mental image that you draw from the written words is for you alone. To this extent, I believe that well-written eroticism is good for literature as a whole, and I am proud to say that Michael Crummey (and many other Canadian writers, for that matter) can write it as well as anyone else in the world. 

Before I close, I will add one disclaimer: as with Wolf Hall, it is important to keep one of your fingers wedged in the front matter when reading Galore, particularly the family tree that Crummey provides. Characters you meet at the opening of this book will be dead for a hundred years by the time you turn the last page, and it is very easy to become lost without consulting the family tree. It might take a little bit of work, but Galore is well worth it. If you truly love where you come from, and wish to write a novel that can do justice to that love, Galore is a beautiful model to emulate. It is a book that deserves not only to be read, but to be remembered for a very, very long time.