Monday, December 24, 2007

Shelf Monkey

Have you ever tossed aside a book out of disgust for its inept writing? Have you ever wondered how such drivel gets published in the first place? And what about those rumours of bestseller lists being manipulated by bookstore chains to move vast quantities of trash?

Imagine how a booklover who is the teeniest bit unhinged might react. A booklover who, like a character named Aubrey in the novel, organizes his volumes by font:

My basement is mostly Cheltenham and variations. The kitchen is currently Arial and Bembo, the guest bedroom Bodoni.

Such is the premise for Corey Redekop's literary thriller about a group of bibliomaniacs who call themselves "shelf monkeys." Their gatherings have developed into a certain cult-like ritual that by the end of the novel gets way out of hand.

The book is replete with humour, profanity, and literary references. Identifying those references is one of the novel's main attractions. How many of the books recommended by the shelf monkeys have you read?
Cryptonomicon? This All Happened? The Bear Went Over the Mountain? (Yes! Yes! Yes!)

There's also lots of literary name-dropping. Do you know who Winston Smith is? Chili Palmer? Lady Fuschia Groan? Valentine Michael Smith? Have you read China Mieville? Tibor Fischer?

When Aubrey appears at a costume event carrying a picture frame, is he referring to a book by Oscar Wilde or James Joyce? What is the reference when he says, "The first rule of Shelf Monkey Club? You do not talk about Shelf Monkey Club." Or when another character, petting a dog named Margarita, says to Aubrey, "So you're the Master I take it?"

The reason the shelf monkeys are so unstable? Most of them work in a big-box bookstore where they are forced to push dreadful books -- a situation that reminded me of Orwell's wonderful essay, "Bookshop Memories," in which he states that working in a bookstore destroyed his love of books.

There are some very fine lines in the book, some great laughs and invigorating rants.

...libraries, brothels of literature, old hags showing their stretch marks and cigarette burns, promising you a good time, sailor, I've got some tricks left, don't let the appearance fool you, just because some yahoo scribbled in my margins doesn't mean I can't pretend it's the first time with you, baby, just don't treat me too rough, or there'll be trouble, I've got friends...

There were a few places where I thought the book missed its mark, but overall Redekop's strong sure voice carries the day. He's certainly lined up some very big guns in his corner: Paul Quarrington on the back cover, and Miriam Toews in the acknowledgements.

Finally, a word about the physical object itself. The author has been well-served by his publisher, ECW. The book design is clean and crisp, while the cover is very bold indeed. Nary a word on the front, just a simple two-colour icon. A photo doesn't do it justice. The cover stock is thick and glossy with flaps, and feels good in the hands. I found myself repeatedly closing the book to admire it.