Sunday, December 1, 2013

David Copperfield

So there's the Game Chicken in Dombey and Son, and Mealy Potatoes in this one, but Dickens missed a great opportunity for a similar name by not providing the Peggottys with a chicken coop.

Collecting the eggs, you see, would have fallen to Em'ly and given her an oval nickname that foreshadowed her betrothal. How Mr. Peggotty would have chortled over his beloved Ham and Eggy!

The Sea

Silliness aside, there is already plenty of foreshadowing, and it begins on the very first page when we learn that David was born without a caul, an item prized by sailors as protection against drowning.

In chapter 2 he visits the Peggottys, a family of fisherfolk that includes two orphans, Em'ly and Ham, whose fathers were drowned. Em'ly herself has seen a boat torn to pieces, and trembles during storms because she seems to hear Ham and her uncle crying out for help. Yet her fear of the sea does not prevent her from flirting with danger as she walks along a jagged timber jutting out from a pier.

These events foreshadow not only the arrival of Steerforth, who uses a boat to seduce Em'ly, but also the tempest at the end of the novel, a good 50 chapters away, in which a ship is torn to pieces, and Steerforth and Ham drown.


The marriage of Murdstone and David’s mother foreshadows David's first marriage. The similarity of the names, Clara and Dora, signal the similarity of their childish natures. "A very Baby" is how Aunt Betsey describes Clara when they first meet, and in chapter 4 Clara sounds exactly like Dora when she exclaims, "Davy, you naughty boy! Peggotty, you savage creature!" Dora, a self-acknowledged "silly little thing," asks David to refer to her as his "child-wife."

David tries to "form Dora’s mind" and teach her some useful homemaking skills, but in so doing nearly emulates Murdstone's attempt to instill "firmness" in David's mother. "I didn’t marry to be reasoned with," Dora tells David, and faints when he encourages her to read a cookbook and learn how to keep household accounts. The best she can do is hold David’s pens while he writes. She is more pet than wife.


At home David takes refuge from the Murdstones in his father's books, and at school recounts them to Steerforth in "a simple earnest narrative style of narrating." Later, while working at Murdstone's warehouse in London, he amuses himself by inventing histories for people he sees in the street. By the end of the book he has become a famous author.

David Copperfield

David is an impulsive and credulous naif. For most of the novel he is routinely cheated and gulled and taken advantage of by just about everyone he meets. As a young boy he's an easy mark for a waiter at a Yarmouth hotel, a young man with a donkey cart, a disreputable dealer in second-hand clothes, and a brutal tinker.

At school he happily hands over money and food to Steerforth, and when boarding with the Wickfields he is gutted for information by Heep and his mother. He is cowed by his landlady Mrs. Crupp and inconvenienced by a long line of servants who are incompetent, thieving, or both.

His "pliant nature" is signified by the number of names that are applied to him. Four that he happily accepts are Davy, Daisy, Doady, and Trotwood (sometimes shortened to Trot). Occasionally he is referred to as Master Murdstone, Mr. Copperfull, Young Innocence, and Brooks of Sheffield.

The Murdstones

In the early chapters Dickens uses simple declarative sentences to reflect David's viewpoint as a powerless young child. It's a touch that magnifies the menace of the Murdstones, and makes them among Dickens's most convincing villains. Thanks in no small part to them the novel gets off to a rivetting start, and one of most satisfying lines in the book belongs to Aunt Betsey when she threatens to knock off Jane Murdstone's bonnet.


Steerforth is one of Dickens's finest creations. David idolizes him for his charm and accomplishments while remaining blind to his less likable characteristics. Such loyalty is both foolish and admirable. Others try to warn David, and the acidic comment of Rosa Dartle is particularly apt: "He thinks you young and innocent, and so you are his friend? Well, that’s quite delightful."

Steerforth's occasional moments of honesty are what make him credible in a way that many other characters are not. His last words to David are a superb touch. When he and the Murdstones sink out of sight, the novel becomes much less interesting, and begins to sag under an increasing load of sentimentality and pointless subplots.

Uriah Heep

The red-headed Heep is one of Dickens's most picturesque villains, yet much less believable than Steerforth. Fawning and slimy, he writhes like an eel and has clammy hands and "damp fishy fingers." His favourite word is "umble."


A comic figure always in debt and just a step ahead of his creditors, yet "never so happy as when he was busy about something that could never be of any profit to him." He loves writing letters and excels at making punch. He doesn't speak, he perorates. His favourite word is "pecuniary."

Despite their difficulties, his wife is devoted to him. Her signature line is: "I will never desert you, Micawber."

Agnes Wickfield

David's failure to recognize her as an ideal mate mirrors his blindness to Steerforth's true nature. Unfortunately Agnes is just another in a long line of bland and selfless heroines, and one of the most derided.


Dickens called David Copperfield his "favourite child." Biographer Fred Kaplan refers to it as "a thinly concealed autobiographical fantasy."

Like David, Dickens mastered shorthand well enough to become a skilled parliamentary reporter, and became famous when he branched out into fiction. The character of Micawber is based on his own improvident father, who, like Micawber, spent time in debtor's prison.

More important is David's stint at Murdstone's warehouse. His shame, his heartfelt anguish and "secret agony of the soul," have the deep ring of truth, drawn from Dickens's own childhood experience in a blacking factory:

The remembrance of that life is fraught with so much pain to me, and so much mental suffering and want of hope, that I have never had the courage even to examine how long I was doomed to lead it. Whether it lasted for a year, or more, or less, I do not know.

The book began serial publication in 1849, after Dickens had experienced 13 years of a slowly disintegrating marriage, which was likely the inspiration for Annie's comment: "There can be no disparity in marriage like unsuitability of mind and purpose."

Ironically there was something of Murdstone in Dickens, for he was a "perfectionist who dominated the life of the household that left little room for [his wife]." (Kaplan)

Favourite Scenes

Two of the scenes I enjoyed most were humorous ones. The waiter in chapter 5 not only drinks David's ale and eats most of his dinner, but cons him out of a shilling and sends him on his way with a joke: "Take care of that child or he'll burst."

Equally funny is David's account, in chapter 44, of how he and Dora are cheated by every servant and tradesman they come in contact with. One line sounds straight out of Monty Python:

As to the washerwoman pawning the clothes, and coming in a state of penitent intoxication to apologize, I suppose that might have happened several times to anybody.


In chapter 1, Aunt Betsey scoffs at the name that David's father gave to the Copperfield home -- the Rookery. "Cookery would have been more to the purpose," she says to Clara, "if you had any practical ideas about life, either of you." This comment introduces a topic that crops up later.

As for food mentioned in the book, we have Mrs. Micawber making a little jug of egg-hot to revive herself after fainting, and Aunt Betsey drinking warm ale with a teaspoon and soaking strips of toast in it. Other delights:

cold boiled bacon
hot kidney pudding
a saveloy and a penny-loaf
a basin of mutton broth dimpled all over with fat
mushroom ketchup
porter and oysters
warm sherry negus
very hot port

Ironically, Catherine Dickens, whatever her deficiencies, was not the helpless idiot that Dora is. She published a cookbook entitled What Shall We Have for Dinner? under the name Lady Maria Clutterbuck. It went through several editions.


How many Betsey Trotwoods are there?
a) two
b) three
c) four
d) five

What is the original name of the boat Steerforth buys?
a) Blue Noddy
b) Sooty Tern
c) Stormy Petrel
d) Little Shearwater

a) Tungay..............1) a dwarf
b) Mortimer............2) a servant
c) Traddles............3) has a wooden leg
d) Mealy Potatoes......4) has a scarred lip
e) the Orfling.........5) Annie's mother
f) the Old Soldier.....6) Micawber's alias
g) Miss Mowcher........7) Mr. Dick's real name
h) Rosa Dartle.........8) draws skeletons
i) Richard Babley......9) works in a warehouse


Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Universe in a Nutshell

A less daunting read than A Brief History of Time (1988) due to the many full-colour illustrations -- at least one on every page and many of them gorgeous -- plus Hawking's chatty approach and puckish sense of humour.

At one point he mentions giving a seminar on black holes in Paris. It did not go over well, in part because the literal translation of black hole, trou noir, had "dubious sexual connotations."

Still, many of the concepts are beyond easy understanding, and remind one of medieval debates about the number of angels that can tread upon the head of a pin. Some of the terminology reflects this: imaginary numbers, virtual particles, shadow galaxies, dark radiation, vacuum energy. Imaginary time, for example, is measured by imaginary numbers and runs at right angles to normal time.

A few interesting quotes:

Our past is pear-shaped.

The first discussion of black holes appeared in 1783.

One can think of the universe as being like a giant casino.

The universe has multiple histories, each of which is determined by a tiny nut.

You might wonder if this chapter is part of a government coverup on time travel. You might be right.

The anthropic principle says that the universe has to be more or less as we see it, because if it were different, there wouldn’t be anyone here to observe it.

The book's final chapter begins with this intriguing thought: do we live on a brane or are we just holograms? And it concludes by mentioning the Large Hadron Collider that was still under construction in Europe when the book came out in 2001. It may, Hawking says, help us learn whether or not we live on a brane:

If we do, it will presumably be because the anthropic principle picks out brane models from the vast zoo of universes allowed by M-theory. We could well paraphrase Miranda from Shakespeare's The Tempest:

O Brane new world
that has such creatures in't.

That is the universe in a nutshell.

A typical snazzy illustration: Could an advanced civilization build a time machine?

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Tales of Pirx the Pilot

Unlike the whimsical fantasy of The Cyberiad, these five stories attempt to portray space travel realistically during a time of routine interplanetary voyages.

There are no aliens, no space battles. Instead the plots turn on malfunctioning equipment: a short circuit, a burnt-out condenser, a "loose charge" in a CRT screen.

Although the stories are more than 40 years old and often sound dated, the overall effect is not as negative as one might expect.

The attempt at realism has already been undercut by the author’s use of a likeable but somewhat bumbling hero, and by language that is often folksy and jocular, resulting in a semi-comic feel. At one point Pirx wonders:

"What were those rockets firing, anyway? Dumplings?"

It's an odd but interesting combination, and gives the stories a retro feel (e.g. a pilot smoking a cigarette on his acceleration couch, his ship "a relic of atomic architecture" with "scars of old radiation leaks") that goes well with the subversive use of humour, whose purpose (I think) is to camouflage a deep pessimism. If space travel becomes possible, it will only give us a larger stage on which to demonstrate our shortcomings.

The Test – The opening story is the most comedic, with Pirx a chubby cadet who must take a ship to the Moon and perform a series of maneuvers, during which he is tormented by a couple of flies.

The Conditioned Reflex – Pirx is assigned to a Moon station whose construction was marked by bickering and wrongheaded engineering decisions. Pirx and his partner are replacing two men who died under mysterious circumstances, and unexpectedly find themselves recreating their final moments. This is the longest story in the book and the Moon is described in great detail.

On Patrol – Two men are lost on patrol, and Pirx comes close to suffering the same fate.

The Albatross – While travelling in a luxury liner, a distress call is received and Pirx becomes witness to a disaster in space. In the middle of a botched rescue effort, the passengers want to know when they can resume dancing.

Terminus – Pirx is assigned to a rebuilt tub following an accident in which the entire crew perished, save a robot now suffering from post traumatic stress. It has "oily wrists" and is "so old it was almost blind and deaf." One of its duties is looking after the ship's mice, which are used as "live radiation gauges." The story and the book end with the following observation:

[Pirx] began thinking about the innocence of machines, about how man had endowed them with intelligence and, in doing so, had made them an accomplice of his mad adventures. About how the myth of the golem – the myth of the machine that rebelled against its creator – was a lie, a fiction invented by the guilty for the sake of self-exoneration.

More Tales of Pirx the Pilot

The original Tales of Pirx the Pilot was first published in 1966. The English translation arrived in 1979 but contained only half of the stories. The remainder appeared in 1982 under the title More Tales of Pirx the Pilot.

Pirx is now an older and more respected figure but the mishaps continue, mainly due to human foibles and a misplaced confidence in technology.

Pirx's Tale - While hauling space junk from Mercury to Earth, Pirx witnesses an abandoned alien craft making a swing through the solar system. Unfortunately his ship is so beaten-up that "every lift-off or landing was a violation of the laws of physics," and his crew has just come down with the mumps.

The Accident - In the only story that takes place beyond the solar system, Pirx is "stuck in the mountains of an utterly worthless planet" with two feuding colleagues. Just as their mission is coming to an end, a robot fails to return from a routine task. When they go out in search of it, Pirx makes surprising discovery, one that he keeps to himself.

The Hunt - Damaged in an accident on the Moon, a mining robot turns a laser on its makers. Pirx is one of several men sent out to destroy it, but when he comes face-to-face with it he finds danger coming from a different direction.

The Inquest - In the longest and most complex of the stories, Pirx is on trial for an accident that occurred on a flight to Saturn, during which he was to test a new model of robot -- in fact, an android indistinguishable from a human being. During the flight several crew members attempted to tip off Pirx about the robot's identity. One person even claimed that he himself was the robot, and gave reasons why he wanted to fail. Who could Pirx trust?

Ananke - The first of a new class of super-freighters crashes while attempting to land on Mars. Was it a freak accident or does the same fate await the next two ships already en route?

Pirx also appears in a later novel, Fiasco.

Official website

Saturday, August 10, 2013

American Notes

In 1842 Dickens arrived in America starry-eyed with admiration for the young, vigorous, and self-made republic, no doubt seeing in it a reflection of himself. At the same time America was no less admiring of an author who at 30 years of age was already an international celebrity.

Dickens got the sort of reception that the Beatles did more than a century later. Indeed, with his long hair, he would not have looked out of place alongside the Fab Four, as can be seen in the portrait below, which was painted in Boston at the beginning of the tour. It gives one a fresh appreciation for the writer who had already produced at such a young age Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, Old Curiosity Shop, and Barnaby Rudge.

Despite getting off to an excellent start, the tour soon went sour. Dickens was pummelled in the press for urging the need for international copyright, beleaguered by legions of curious fans, and finally worn out by months of travel.

He met people from all strata of society, from its most elite (including the President) to its most wretched. He saw much to admire but also much to despise: filth, boorishness, hypocrisy, swinish table manners, and more.

Filled with loathing, he returned to England and produced a travel book with the ungainly title of American Notes for General Circulation.

It is not much read today, one reason being the endless inspections of public institutions, which make for rather dull reading. Yet at the same time there are many fine passages that sparkle with his trademark wit, exaggeration, and keen eye for detail.

His journey was retraced recently in a BBC TV series called Dickens in America. Hosted by actress Miriam Margolyes, it comes on three disks and clocks in at five hours.

Great Expectorations

At first Dickens struggles to maintain the stance of an impartial observer, but it does not take long for his bottled rage to escape. He portrays Americans as humourless idlers and "leaden people." Meals are eaten with "no conversation, no laughter, no cheerfulness, no sociality, except in spitting." People thrust knives and forks down their throats or suck them meditatively. Hot corn bread is "almost as good for the digestion as a pin cushion," while sherry cobbler and mint julep are to be avoided "by those who wish to preserve contented minds."

The press is "a monster of depravity," politicians "legislators of coarse threats, of words and blows such as coalheavers deal upon each other." The Mississippi is a "foul stream," the town of Cairo a "detestable morass." Roads are bad, hotel bedrooms "conducive to early rising," and overheated stoves a "detested enemy."

Running like a theme through the book is his disgust for "salivatory phenomenon." Washington is "the head-quarters of tobacco-tinctured saliva" with "the universal disregard for the spittoon" existing even in the Senate and House of Representatives, where the carpets "are squirted and dabbled upon." Gentlemen in the President’s mansion "bestowed their favours…abundantly on the carpet." The driver of a mail-coach "chews and sprays," while sleepers on a canal boat "expectorate in dreams."

I was surprised to observe that even steady old chewers of great experience are not always good marksmen, which has rather inclined me to doubt that general proficiency with the rifle, of which we have heard so much in England. Several gentlemen called upon me who, in the course of conversation, frequently missed the spittoon at five paces, and one (but he was certainly short-sighted) mistook the closed sash for the open window, at three.

The book closes with a denunciation of slavery and examples of extreme cruelty and brazen violence. Slave-owners are the "miserable aristocracy spawned of a false republic."

A Touch of Pickwick

Non-fiction, yes, but details are captured with the eye of a novelist, some indelibly so. Onboard the Cunard steamship RMS Britannia, "every plank has its groan, every nail its shriek." A stove is a "red-hot demon" and a train has a "mad dragon of an engine." A young girl has a "loquacious chin," while a man's beard is "shaved down to blue dots." Pigs have backs like "the lids of old horsehair trunks," while prisoners in striped uniforms resemble "faded tigers."

Even better, Dickens does not restrain his comic genius, and at such moments it's almost as if Pickwick, not Dickens, is on tour. The horizon seems drunk when crossing the Atlantic, and the motion of the ship makes beds "a practical joke." Stage-coaches sink up to their windows in mire, and passengers are either "flung together in a heap at the bottom" or have their heads crushed against the roof.

And here is an example of the sort of rudeness that infuriated him:

Being rather early, those men and boys who happened to have nothing particular to do, and were curious in foreigners, came (according to custom) round the carriage in which I sat; let down all the windows; thrust in their heads and shoulders; hooked themselves on conveniently by their elbows; and fell to comparing notes on the subject of my personal appearance, with as much indifference as if I were a stuffed figure.

I never gained so much uncompromising information with reference to my own nose and eyes, and various impressions wrought by my mouth and chin on different minds, and how my head looks when it is viewed from behind, as on these occasions.

Some gentlemen were only satisfied by exercising their sense of touch; and the boys (who are surprisingly precocious in America) were seldom satisfied, even by that, but would return to the charge over and over again. Many a budding president has walked into my room with his cap on his head and his hands in his pockets, and stared at me for two whole hours: occasionally refreshing himself with a tweak of his nose, or a draught from the water jug; or by walking to the windows and inviting other boys in the street below, to come up and do likewise: crying, "Here he is!" "Come on!" "Bring all your brothers!"

American Connection

The trip to America was Dickens's first major setback as an adult, and may have wounded him as deeply as his childhood experience in a blacking factory. Is there a connection between his need for adulation and his almost demonic energy, traceable perhaps to his negligent mother? His visits to jails, insane asylums, and other public institutions, though admirable, seem at times almost pathological, as though satisfying a morbid need to see how low he himself might have sunk had he not written his way out of penury.

In any event, he returned from America deeply shaken. He vented his disappointment in American Notes and the American passages of the novel that came next, Martin Chuzzlewit. The latter, however, was the first of his novels to suffer a decline in popularity as it was being published, and led to him switching publishers. It was as though his American experiences were still casting a shadow across his life.

Twenty-five years later he made a second trip to America and conducted a very successful reading tour. This time he was favourably impressed and promised to include in all future editions of American Notes and Martin Chuzzlewit a postscript recording the changing of his views.

But the reading tour took its toll. A gouty swollen foot made it difficult to walk, and he needed assistance taking the stage in New York for his final readings. He returned to England exhausted, yet almost immediately began preparations for another round of readings in England. He survived one more year.

Canadian Connection

In 1842 the RMS Britannia made a brief stopover in Halifax, and Dickens recorded a few observations at the end of Chapter II.

Later, after visiting Niagara Falls, which was one of the few sights that lived up to its billing, he continued north to Toronto, Montreal and Quebec City. About half of Chapter XV is devoted to this portion of his tour. Canada, he wrote, was a "sound and wholesome state," which would hold "a foremost place in my remembrance."

After his death in 1870, one of his shiftless sons wangled an appointment to the North West Mounted Police. Frank Dickens served in Canada for 12 years, beginning in 1874 and ending in 1886. After his discharge, he hoped to revive his declining fortunes with a lecture tour in the US, but on the day of his first scheduled appearance he died of a heart attack at the age of 42.

The Canadian Dictionary of Biography has this to say of him:

Francis Dickens made a definite, if negative, impact on the Canadian west. He was partly responsible for the serious deterioration in relations between the NWMP and the Blackfoot in the 1880s. His misadventures also contributed to the strong prejudice against English officers that existed in the mounted police in the late 19th century.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Meet the Robisons

Two brothers, two memoirs, and two remarkably similar covers -- a boy with a box on his head, another with his eyes squeezed shut. Just what is it they can't bear to look at? The answer is a dysfunctional family with parents who loathe each other, the father an abusive alcoholic, the mother mentally ill. Enter a philandering, balloon-loving psychiatrist who invites patients to live at his squalid house and eventually becomes the legal guardian of thirteen-year-old Chris.

Running with Scissors

This is his memoir of those early years. He is gay, hates school, and likes to polish jewellery. He wants hair as smooth as plastic and dreams of becoming the next Vidal Sassoon. He also has a wicked sense of humour, and at the psychiatrist’s home there is plenty of opportunity to exercise it.

The kids play with an electroshock machine. Bowel movements and randomly selected bible passages are consulted for divine guidance. And since Dr. Finch believes repressed anger is dangerous, he encourages confrontation. The result is some hilarious foul-mouthed vituperation among family members. No one escapes the book's wounded humour, including the author himself. In one place I actually shouted with laughter. But the book's purpose is to shock as well as entertain, and includes a couple of uncomfortable sex scenes.

Dr. Finch eventually lost his licence and Chris changed his name to Augusten Xon Burroughs. He worked in advertising before launching his career as a memoirist. Running with Scissors was a huge best-seller and made into a movie, but also triggered a lawsuit against Augusten and his publisher. The case was settled out of court with both sides claiming vindication. Burroughs maintains the memoir is accurate.

Look Me in the Eye

Augusten's older brother, John, has Asperger's Syndrome, which went undiagnosed until he was 40 years old. As a teenager, John was written off as a lazy misfit by teachers and therapists. He dropped out of high school and left home at age 16.

What happened next is remarkable. An interest in music and electronics led to a successful career as a sound engineer for Pink Floyd's sound company, and soon he was modifying guitars for Ace Frehley of KISS so they would produce smoke and shoot rockets. Eventually he set up his own business based on another of his passions, repairing high-end autos – Porsches, Rolls-Royces, etc.

Where Running with Scissors is shockingly funny, Look Me in the Eye is earnest and inspirational, shedding light on what it's like to be an Aspergian and celebrating its gifts. Yet John is not without his own sense of humour, and it can be as bent as Augusten's. Some of the scenes are as startling as anything in Running with Scissors. Others are just plain memorable.

In one, John attends a faculty party with his parents and puts some snooty profs in place with an outrageous off-the-cuff tale about why you should tip your garbageman. In another, he's working at Milton Bradley, the toy company, and sets up a joke involving a pile of white powder made by shaving a plastic countertop in the R&D lab. A company VP doesn't report it -- he snorts it and keeps coming back for more.

It was Augusten's encouragement that caused John to write Look Me in the Eye. Augusten wrote the foreword, and in his own book devotes a chapter to John. At the same time, John records his own encounters with Dr. Finch, using the same pseudonyms that Augusten uses. At the end of Look Me in the Eye, we learn that the two brothers have built homes nextdoor to each other.

The complementary nature of the books is a good reason to read them back-to-back.

Meet the Finches
Ruthless with Scissors

Meet the Parents
John G. Robison
Margaret Robison

Meet the Authors
Augusten’s website

John’s website

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Road

Jack London's Road is a somewhat disjointed memoir of his hoboing days in 1894 when he hopped freights across the continent. America was crippled by one of its worst depressions ever, and he set out to join an army of the unemployed marching on Washington. Only 18 at the time, he went as more of a lark than anything else, and describes with youthful exuberance riding the rods and foiling brakemen by climbing to the roofs of, and jumping in and out of, moving boxcars.

When not on the train, he begged for food and clothes, which he looked upon as "a joyous prank, a game of wits, a nerve-exerciser." He spent 30 days for vagrancy in the Erie County Penitentiary outside Buffalo, and explains how he conned the other cons. He saw a woman being whipped, stole a brandnew hat off the head of a Chinaman, and ran with a gang of youths who rolled drunks.

Similarities between this and a more famous road book (an autobiographical novel by another Jack) invite comparisons, but my thoughts ran, or rather rambled, in another direction, and I found myself thinking about an entirely different sort of road novel.

Cormac McCarthy's Road runs through a post-apocalyptic America with a man and his young son carrying their meagre belongings in a shopping cart. The terrain is an "ashen scabland," the train they stumble across "slowly decomposing for all eternity." The few remaining people are broken-down wrecks living like animals –- a grinding filthy miserable existence fraught by growing fear and dread. "I don't think we're likely to meet any good guys on the road," the father tells his son.

Both books are short, London's clocking in at just over 50,000 words with McCarthy's in the same ballpark. London's prose remains surprisingly fresh a century after it was written, but in places its youthful vigour gives way to what sounds like adolescent boasting. Of his ability to fabricate a story at a moment's notice, he says, "I have often thought that to this training of my tramp days is due much of my success as a story-writer."

McCarthy's prose is far more grim and powerful. The stripped-down punctuation gives it an elemental quality suitable for such a tense and harrowing tale. London's own post-apocalyptic novel, The Scarlet Plague, seems positively sunny by comparison. Similar to McCarthy's Road, it begins with an old man and his twelve-year-old grandson plodding along a railway embankment and clad in skins. It is 60 years after a worldwide plague in 2013 (eerily, the same year I am writing this) killed off nearly everyone. The handful that remain live in "primitive savagery," collecting human teeth on strings and unable to count beyond ten. One of the survivors is a brutish chauffeur who takes pleasure in beating the widow of one of the most influential men in pre-plague times.

Brutality, atavism, and survival of the strongest are recurring motifs in London's work, but nothing in his oeuvre can compare to McCarthy's Road for the chilling evocation of how nasty and repellent life would really be in a world without the veneer of civilization. On the very first page of the novel is the following dream:

And on the far shore a creature that raised its dripping mouth from the rimstone pool and stared into the light with eyes dead white and sightless as the eggs of spiders. It swung its head low over the water as if to take the scent of what it could not see. Crouching there pale and naked and translucent, its alabaster bones cast up in shadow on the rocks behind it. Its bowels, its beating heart. The brain the pulsed in a dull glass bell. It swung its head from side to side and then gave out a low moan and turned and lurched away and loped soundlessly into the dark.

London's chauffeur represents a brutal working class bent on revenge, whereas McCarthy's creature stands for a world inimical to everyone, with the man and the boy struggling to remain not only alive, but human. In the end, however, it seems to me that both authors are writing about the same thing -- the savagery of American society.

Canadian Content

In 1894 London returned from his wanderings via the CPR. It took him six days to get from Montreal to Ottawa. The latter, he says, is "the hardest town in the United States and Canada to beg clothes in; the one exception is Washington, D.C."

At a Winnipeg police station he pieced together a tale convincing enough to keep him out of jail. Travelling west, he engaged in a long battle of wits with the CPR's brakemen, which he finally won enabling him to ride over 1000 miles in a boxcar half full of coal.

In a later chapter, "Hobos That Pass in the Night," he provides more detail about the journey, describing how he and another "bo" were aware of each other's presence by their noms-de-rail (London's was Sailor Jack) which they carved in wooden watertanks as they went across the prairies and through Kicking Horse Pass in the Rockies. In Vancouver they both signed on ships without once ever meeting each other.

Despite London's experiences in Ottawa and Winnipeg, James Haley writes in his biography that "London was cheered by the discovery that Canadians were more forthcoming in their sympathy for the homeless unemployed" and that "Canadian generosity left a deep impression."

On the Rods

Haley referred to London's Road as "a combination memoir of his months riding the rails and exposition of tramping as a an American subculture created by capitalist abuse of workers."

Most of the material had appeared in Cosmopolitan magazine before it came out in book form. The magazine version contained a number of illustrations not found in the book, but you can find them on the excellent Jack London site maintained by the Sonoma State University Library. The book itself was a flop, unlike McCarthy's Road, which was famously a selection by Oprah's Bookclub, won the Pulitzer in 2006, and made into a movie.

McCarthy's Suttree is probably the closest of his works to London's Road, for it describes the ragged existence of people on the margins of society in Knoxville, Tennessee. Said to be semi-autobiographical, it's a wonderful book with powerful prose, and a good one to start with if you haven't read McCarthy before, because its darkness is leavened with humour.


The Road with illustrations
Jack London's Dark Side An insightful essay about his "historical castration"

Cormac McCarthy official website
McCarthy's interview with Oprah

Friday, May 17, 2013


Good chess novels are hard to come by, but this is one of the better ones, set in St. Petersburg in 1914, three years prior to the Russian revolution. Lining up against each other are the Bolsheviks, of course, and the Tsar backed by his secret police, the Okhrana.

At the same time a prestigious chess tournament is being held, in which many of the world's strongest players are competing, including Lasker, Capablanca, Tarrasch, Blackburne, Nimzowitch. The tournament was real, but departing from historical fact is the inclusion of a fictional GM named Rozental (though he is based on Rubinstein). He is favoured to win.

In a third narrative strand, the main character, Dr. Otto Spethmann, is a psychoanalyst treating not only Rozental, but also Petrov, the de facto leader of the Bolsheviks with Lenin in exile, and a woman named Anna, with whom Spethmann falls in love. Thus we have the intricacies of chess mirrored by the intricacies of revolution, psychoanalysis, and love -- an impressive and ambitious conceit.

Finally, to top it all off, Spethmann is playing a correspondence game against his friend, a gifted violinist named Kopelzon. Spethmann has never beaten him, but this time he feels he has a good chance. As the book opens, they have reached a rook and pawn endgame. Spethmann has just played Rxg4 -- and the body of a liberal newspaper editor has been retrieved from a canal.

Over the course of the novel, the progress of this game is followed by means of 12 diagrams.

"Psychoanalysis is like panning for gold"

Rozental is on the verge of a mental breakdown and has been brought to Spethmann by Kopelzon. The latter is very keen that Rozental win the tournament, for both are Polish Jews, and with Poland occupied and partitioned by Russia, a victory by Rozental would be a symbolic victory against their country's oppressors. Soon after Spethmann's first session with the Rozental, two thugs invade his office and steal the GM's file.

Petrov is a champion of the city’s poor and an electrifying speaker, but he is also exhausted and depressed. His life is hellish and the party a snakepit, especially since its penetration by a traitor, codenamed King, who has been betraying comrades. He visits Spethmann under the alias of Grischuk, and tells Spethmann, "I want you to make my lives possible."

Anna is suffering from nightmares, which appear to be related to a traumatic event that happened when, as a young girl, she visited Kazan with her father, Zinnurov, from whom she is now estranged. Zinnurov, nicknamed the Mountain, is an influential industrialist and anti-Bolshevik. He warns Spethmann that his daughter is erratic and cannot be trusted to speak the truth. Their stories about events in Kazan do not match.

"A series of ingenious slayings"

That is how Spethmann describes the chess tournament. They are matched by actual slayings beginning with the newspaper editor and quickly followed by that of a young man, whose body is found with Spethmann’s card in his pocket. Inspector Lychev of the St. Petersburg police believes Spethmann’s 17-year-old daughter, Catherine, is somehow involved.

Bodies continue to pile up as Bolsheviks clash with the secret police. A notorious Polish terrorist is on the loose and a plot to assassinate the Tsar is uncovered. Nothing can be taken at face value. Everyone has a secret, allegiances shift, complications spring up, lies and spies proliferate. The dizzying complexities suggest the many possible lines in a chess match. Spethmann observes:

…I tried to be as logical about Lychev’s story as about the variations in a chess game. In chess it is easy to be panicked by a complicated position and the aggressive manoeuvring of an opponent. What is needed always is a cool eye and a clear head. Calculate. Calculate concrete variations. What do I do if my opponent does this? What do I do after that?

Spethmann's cool approach to life is turned upside-down when he is drawn into a torrid affair, thrown into jail, shot at, blown up, and finally has to flee the country. The dilemma he faces cannot be won. He, like Russia itself, is in zugzwang.


Book Trailer
Author interview on Chessbase

Friday, April 5, 2013

Jack London

Lots of interesting details in this recent bio: Jack's illegitimate birth and black wetnurse, his infatuation with surfing, his Korean and Japanese valets, his stint as a war correspondent, his bohemian friends with their vials of cyanide, his welcoming of tramps into his home, and his "supposed anti-American sympathies" that caused the FBI to open a file on him after his death.

On the literary side it was interesting to learn that there were scenes in Sea Wolf that "shocked and terrified readers;" that he purchased story ideas from Sinclair Lewis, was praised by Conrad and Kipling, and became the highest paid writer in America.

However, when the "Dickensian gloom" of a cannery was mentioned, I began to see shadowy similarities with another great writer.

London and Dickens

Both were literary dynamos. London published at least one book a year beginning in 1900, but more usually it was two or three and sometimes four. Several came out posthumously, making a total of 49 books between 1900 and 1920.

Commitment to social reform began with their experiences as child labourers, Dickens famously in a blacking factory at age 12, London in a pickle factory at age 14. Dickens's ordeal was short, lasting something like six months, but London did not escape so easily. He put in ten-hour days at a jute mill for ten cents an hour, and shovelled coal at a power plant for $30 and a single day off per month.

Before London was out of his teens his Oliver-Twist-like existence included oyster pirating, brawls with waterfront bullies, a half-year voyage on a sealing ship, riding the rails across America to join an army of the unemployed marching on Washington, and a 30-day jail term for vagrancy.

Dickens, though reform-minded, was never a revolutionary and regarded trade unions with suspicion. London on the other hand became a socialist, preaching it on street corners, writing about it in essays, and making fans of Emma Goldman and Leon Trotski. In the final year of his life he quit from the Socialist party due to its lack of "fire and fight," signing his resignation letter, "Yours for the Revolution."

Family Resemblances

Both writers were born to neglectful mothers, Dickens never forgiving his for suggesting he remain in the blacking factory when it was no longer absolutely necessary. London's mother was unstable and manipulative, "barren of maternal instinct."

John Dickens, the father of Charles, was a naval pay clerk who was unable to live within his means, and continued to embarrass his adult son by demands for money. The case was different with London, who never knew his biological father. After he was born his mother married a Civil War veteran named John London. "The best man I ever knew," Jack said of him later, but even he on occasion was embarrassed by requests for money. The difference between John Dickens and John London was that the latter was conscientious and hard-working.

An important figure in the life of Dickens was his beloved sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth. With London, it was his devoted step-sister, Eliza Shepard, daughter of John London from his first marriage. In later years she helped run Jack's ranch and manage his literary affairs during his absences.

London and Dickens married in the same year their first books were published, but the matches were unsuitable. Dickens was domineering, striving to create the sort of family life he'd missed out on, with himself at the centre; as though, writes one of his biographers, Fred Kaplan, he needed "to become father to himself." London's failure as a husband was due, at least in part, to his never having had a childhood. The marriage breakups were widely publicized and neither man proved to be a particularly able parent.

London on London

After reading the bio I was keen to dig into something by London himself, and hauled out this excellent compendium from the Library of America and which had been languishing on a bookshelf for far too long.

People of the Abyss is what I read, an expose of life in the London slums written in 1902. To my surprise and delight, the prose remains fresh and vital.

London passes himself off as a stranded American sailor in order to report on living conditions in the East End. The scenes he describes are "straight out of darkest Dickens," with people ground down by "a gross and stupid materialism" until they become stunted physically and mentally. The "gutter folk" he meets are worse off than beasts, living in "dens and lairs" and eating "pavement offal." Children take turns at night "sitting up to drive rats away from the sleepers."

Bathtubs are a thing totally unknown, as mythical as the ambrosia of the gods. The people themselves are dirty, while any attempt at cleanliness becomes a howling farce, when it is not pitiful and tragic. Strange, vagrant odors come drifting along the greasy wind, and the rain, when it falls, is more like grease than water from heaven.

(London's findings were corroborated by a government report after the second Boer War, which concluded in 1902. It found that 40-60% of the volunteers failed to pass the physical exam, a direct result of the "illness, malnutrition, and relentless hard work" experienced by the urban poor.)

People of the Abyss was a success in America but not in England, where reception was hostile -- much as Martin Chuzzlewit's had been in the U.S. for its unflattering portrait of Americans.

Thirty years later George Orwell trod similar ground in Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier. Like London, he was a socialist.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Age of Shakespeare

Two nicely complementary books, one on Shakespeare by the ever breezy Bill Bryson, and the other a rambling and chatty overview of Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights by Judith Cook.

The Bryson book is the illustrated and updated edition, about 50 pages longer than the original, and a worthwhile extravagance because the images are so useful in giving a sense of the time. For example, a reproduced Elizabethan document looks like gibberish and suggests the foreignness of the age. When in 2005 a performance of Troilus and Cressida was given using Elizabethan pronunciation, one critic reckoned he understood no more than 30%.

Shakespeare's life, says Bryson, is "little more than a series of occasional sightings." We're not even sure of his name, it having been variously rendered as Shagspere, Shakspere, Shappere, Shaxberd, and perhaps even Shakeshafte. He may have been gay. We don't know whether he was Catholic or Protestant. We don't know how many plays he wrote or in what order. We know nothing about his activities during a seven-year period before his arrival in London, a period that Bryson slyly devotes an entire chapter to. Inevitably, much of the book concentrates on life in Elizabethan and Jacobean England, but context is not just necessary, it's fascinating.

However, what is known or suspected about Shakespeare is assembled with the usual Bryson industry and scope. The plays and sonnets are looked at from a variety of angles. We read about Shakespeare's stint as Burbage's house playwright, his apparent prosperity, and how his work was received in subsequent years. The book concludes with a chapter on the various claims that the plays were written by someone other than Shakespeare.

A Violent and Brutal Age

Fusing material gleaned from both books, an unsettling portrait of the times emerges. Recurring outbreaks of plague and the shifting tectonics of religion and politics made life dangerous at all levels of society. The Spanish Armada (1588) and the Gunpowder Plot to overthrow James I (1605) are two of the more famous events of the period, but there were also plots to depose or assassinate Elizabeth (e.g Essex, Ridolfi, Babington). She had an active intelligence network and at night slept with a sword by her side. Her refusal to marry or name a successor carried with it the ominous possibility of civil war upon her passing. (No wonder so many of Shakespeare's plays revolve around the transfer of power in a state.)

Hangings, bear-baiting and cock-fighting were forms of public entertainment. "Brawls," writes Bryson, "were shockingly common," as men carried swords and daggers and were quick to use them if they felt slighted. When Cook mentions the versifying of Spenser and Raleigh, she adds, "Renaissance Man indeed had many facets, but unthinking violence is rarely mentioned among them." (Which made me think of the Elizabethan adventurer, Martin Frobisher, and his ruthless dealings with the Inuit of Baffin Island, and the book by aboriginal historian Daniel Paul, We Were Not the Savages.)

"A significant proportion of the population," writes Cook, "lived below the poverty line." Vegetables were eaten mainly by the poor, while those who could afford meat supped on, among other things, "crane, bustard, swan and stork" (Bryson). Rotten teeth caused by sugar consumption was so common that some blackened healthy teeth as a fashion statement.

People believed in witchcraft. Tobacco was known but not tea or coffee. The age of consent for girls was 12, boys 14.

At the Theatre

Play-going was an intimate experience with two to three thousand people crammed into a theatre. No one was more than 50 feet from the stage and some even sat upon it. Prologues were employed due to the high level of illiteracy, yet attention spans were probably better than our own because it was an oral culture. People loved puns and wordplay.

Plays lasted three hours or more (four-and-a-half for Hamlet) without intermission. People ate and drank beer during the performance, and if they needed to relieve themselves buckets were available to piss in. Crowds were noisier than today’s audiences, unafraid to hiss or cheer, or even throw things. Pickpockets and whores were ever-present. Real bullets were used on stage.

Theatre companies consisted of about 15 actors and a handful of apprentices. Complete scripts were not handed out. Instead actors received a separate sheet or roll ("from which the word role comes" says Cook) containing only their own lines and cues. It was rare for a play to run two days in a row, which meant that over the course of a season an actor could be expected to learn 15,000 lines. Plays often concluded with a jig, an attempt to subdue post-play boisterousness.

All plays had to be approved by the Master of Revels and were subject to censorship.

Roaring Boys

Christopher Marlowe – The baby-faced fellow with the chilling stare is thought to be Kit Marlowe. Though he wrote only a handful of plays, he was hugely influential and famously praised by Ben Jonson for his "mighty line." Cook describes him as "flamboyant, outrageous in his behaviour and opinions, given to outbursts of violence," and may have served as the model for Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet. He was involved in a fatal fight before he himself died in what was long thought to be a senseless tavern quarrel, but may in fact have been an assassination, possibly related to his having worked as a government spy. In the top left corner of the portrait is a Latin motto that translates as "That which nourishes me destroys me."

Thomas Kyd – His play The Spanish Tragedy was "the single most popular and successful play of its day, remaining in repertoire for thirty years after his death" (Cook). His acquaintance with Marlowe caused him to be imprisoned and tortured, an experience that shortened his life.

Ben Jonson - Known as the most erudite of the playwrights and also one of the most ill-tempered. He killed at least one man in a duel, a fellow actor. He was imprisoned more than once for the content of his plays. He was branded on the thumb and threatened with having his ears and nose slit. Shakespeare is known to have acted in one of his plays, and may have contracted his fatal illness after they were out drinking together. Jonson once walked from London to Edinburgh. He died impoverished.

John Fletcher – Followed Shakespeare as Burbage’s house playwright, very prolific and collaborated with a number of others, most notably Beaumont. He died of the plague and was probably buried in a common grave.

George Peele – "His name," Cook writes, "became a byword for riotous living and dissipation." He died of a "loathsome disease."

Thomas Middleton – Author of A Game at Chesse, a thinly disguised allegory satirizing the Spanish court. It "ran for an unprecedented nine performances" (Cook) and caused an international incident. When the Spanish ambassador complained, the Globe was shut down and Middleton imprisoned.

Robert Greene – A compulsive gambler, he took up with the sister of the notorious highwayman Cutting Ball Jack. At the end of his life he repented his riotous living and appalling behaviour in a pamphlet called "A Groatsworth of Wit" in which he called Shakespeare "an upstart crow."

Thomas Dekker - He and Jonson became embroiled in a "Poets War," lampooning each other in their plays. Cook gives a hilarious excerpt from his pamphlet "A Gull's Horn Book" in which a newcomer to London is given advice on how to make an impression:

Never cut your hair or suffer a comb to fasten his teeth there. Let it grow thick and bushy, like a forest or some wilderness. Let not those four-footed creatures that breed in it and are tenants to that crown land, be put to death... Long hair will make you dreadful to your enemies, manly to your friends; it blunts the edge of the sword and deadens the thump of the bullet; in winter a warm nightcap, in summer a fan of feathers.

Shakespeare Portrayed in Film

Having thoroughly enjoyed both books, I settled down to view a pair of equally entertaining but very different movies. First up was Shakespeare in Love, which so cleverly conflates aspects of his life with Romeo and Juliet. Then came the newer Anonymous, in which the Bard is a boob, an illiterate opportunist who takes credit for plays written by Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

SS Atlantic

The White Star Line's
First Disaster at Sea

This odd-looking ship with four masts and a single funnel was one of the first modern ocean liners.

It was launched in 1870 and wrecked three years later outside Halifax. Of the approximately 950 passengers and crew, more than half perished. No women and only a single child were among the survivors.

The story is told in this handsome and authoritative book, loaded with illustrations. A quick overview:

Immigration. It was the “torrent of emigrants” coming to America in steerage, not travellers in luxurious first class, that generated enormous profits for the shipping lines.

Shipboard Life. "It was not uncommon to see a whole squadron of kites trailing an emigrant ship" to entertain the children on board.

Final Moments. Told in wrenching and sometimes gruesome detail.

Local Assistance. The amazing generosity of local people and the bravery of one man in particular, a reverend with the unlikely name of Ancient.

Pillaging. People went through the pockets of the dead, while others snipped locks of their hair as souvenirs.

The Dead. Recovery, identification, and burial.

Halifax Inquiry. The captain was found to be ultimately responsible, being asleep in his bunk when the ship grounded.

Salvage. Hard-hat divers had to blast open the ship to get at the cargo.

The Wreck Site Today. Description and photos.

Ghastly Connection. The Atlantic's sinking was only the first of three disasters connecting Halifax with the White Star line. The second occurred in 1912 when the Titanic went down, the recovered bodies being brought to Halifax where the majority remain buried. The third occurred in 1917 when a former White Star ship, the Runic, renamed the Imo, collided with a French munitions ship in the harbour, killing approximately 2000 people.

SS Atlantic Memorial

Images and relics

SS Atlantic Heritage Park Society

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Dead Souls

I was astounded when I first read Gogol's short story, "The Nose." It is so absurd, so Pythonesque, I could scarcely believe it had been written in the 1830s. It begins with a barber eating a roll for breakfast and finding a nose inside. Yes, a nose, and from there the story only gets more bizarre.

I mention this because in the notes to this edition of Dead Souls, the translator, Christopher English, mentions that a rhinological theme runs through Gogol's work. The protagonist of Dead Souls is Chichikov, a name that suggests the Russian word for sneeze, while the name of another character is Nozdryov, which derives from the word nostril.

Comic Masterpiece

The book is set in rural Russia at a time when landowners paid tax on their serfs, even dead ones. This gives Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov an idea, and he visits a number of farms hoping to increase his wealth and status by acquiring the title to serfs (aka souls) who have died.

Of course, it's a shady scheme, and the comic possibilities are obvious. One of the most priceless scenes occurs when a widow dithers over whether or not to turn over her dead serfs. "They might come in useful around the farm," she says worriedly.

Sometimes the humour is pure physical comedy, but it also serves the purpose of bursting pretentions:

At this moment the footman standing behind him wiped the ambassador's nose, and not before time too, for otherwise a sizeable foreign droplet would have fallen into His Excellency's soup.

Eventually Chichikov's plan unravels due to unfounded rumours, each more ridiculous than the last. He is a spy, he is planning to abduct the governor's daughter, he is Napoleon in disguise, he is a veteran with only one arm and one leg. Wait a minute, how can that be? Chichikov is not missing any limbs. No matter, the damage is done and he has to flee.

However, it is not just humour that makes this book a masterpiece. The writing is so easy-going, so natural, we feel as though we're taking a stroll with the author through the Russian countryside. He speaks directly to us; Chichikov is "our hero."

Then there is the loving detail that Gogol weaves into the story:

The black tailcoats flashed and whizzed about, singly and in groups, like flies on a hot July day buzzing round a dazzling white sugar-loaf which the old housekeeper, standing before an open window, chips and divides into sparkling chunks, while the children gather round and gaze in fascination at the movements of her sinewy arms wielding the hammer, and the airborne squadrons of flies, buoyed up by the light air, swoop bravely in, like full masters of the house and--taking advantage of the old woman's poor eyesight, made worse by the glare of the sun--scatter over the succulent morsels, either separately, or in dense clusters.

Gogol's achievement is even more remarkable when one considers how far away in time and language is rural pre-Revolutionary Russia. Differences include the mode of dress, the many civil service ranks, the forms of measure no longer used (versts, poods, arshins), even the different kinds of carriages (droshky, britzka, troika, etc.). Yet none of these are serious obstacles to our enjoyment of the work.

Part Two

It seems that Dead Souls was conceived as a trilogy. We know at least that Gogol worked on Part Two for a number of years, but became mentally unstable at the end of his life and burned the manuscript just days before he died. However, much of it has been restored from previously existing copies. It is fragmentary in a few places, and has no ending.

Whereas in Part One Chichikov is merely engaged in a somewhat shady activity, in Part Two he is more reprehensible. At the same time a moralistic tone enters the book, which I found hard not to see as a reflection of Gogol's own crisis. It seems clear that "dead souls" refers not just to dead serfs, but also to people like Chichikov whose souls are morally dead.


Dead Souls reminds me of another comic masterpiece, Pickwick Papers. They share a picaresque quality and protagonists accompanied in their travels by bumbling companions. They get lost, stop at inns, and listen to tales distinct from the main storyline (in Dead Souls "The Tale of Captain Kopeikin").

There is the same delight in food, and the same use of exaggeration. An army courier has moustaches two feet across, a woman wears a hoop skirt so big it takes up half the church, a colonel offers a "sauce-boat" to a lady on the end of his sabre. The miser Plyushkin, and the quarrelsome bully and inveterate liar Nozdryov, are in many ways as grotesque as anything in Dickens.

Mention is made of a man who, like Krook in Bleak House, spontaneously combusts due to excessive drinking; and when Chichikov tries to process the transfer of the serfs he has acquired, he meets the same bureaucratic obfuscation that Arthur Clennam encounters at the Circumlocution Office in Little Dorrit.

And bits like this:

And along both sides of the highroad it was the same old story: the usual succession of milestones, station-masters, wells, waggon trains, dreary villages with their samovars, countrywomen, and a spry, bearded inn-keeper, running out of his coachyard to meet them, bearing oats for the horses, a wayfarer who had trudged some eight hundreds versts in his worn-out bast shoes; small, wretched towns with the houses arranged haphazardly, with their ramshackle wooden shops, flour barrels, bast shoes, calatches, and other trifling wares; striped turnpikes, bridges under repair; fields stretching as far as the eye could see on both sides of the road; the landaus of local landowners; a mounted soldier, carrying a green box of lead shot, which bore the legend: 'Artillery Battery such-and-such'; the steppe, with its stripes of green, and gold, and freshly turned black earth; a song borne from afar; the tops of pine trees seen through the mist; the peal of church bells ringing, and fading, in the distance; crows clustered as thick as flies, and a horizon without end.


Just as I was finishing the book, I read a newspaper article about a man who died in a Russian jail three years ago. He is to be put on trial later this month.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Love and the Mess We're In

Two words to describe this novel: experimental and extramarital. The first because the book is a collage of text fragments, the second because the two principal characters embark upon an adulterous affair.

In Chapter 1 Clive and Viv arrive in Buenos Aires for their inaugural tryst. Multiple text windows predominate, in one instance mimicking the floor plan of a rented apartment.

Chapter 2 is perhaps the most innovative part of the book. It describes a wine-fueled dinner conversation during which Clive and Viv get hornier and hornier. There are no quotation marks, no “he said” and “she said.” Instead, Viv’s part of the conversation is presented on the left page of the spread, Clive’s on the right. Each page is also divided into two columns, one for speech and one for private thought. The conversation is not the polished talk of most novels. It is jerky and fragmented with the accompanying thoughts providing delightful subtext.

Chapter 3 describes their love-making in blocks of text suggestive of the intimacy and athleticism of sex. Sometimes the book must be rotated in order to be read. The chapter ends with a typographical climax.

In Chapter 4 the escape of Viv’s husband Tim from a mental institution is illuminated by the crackbrained constellations he sees overhead.

The final chapter finds Clive and Viv in New York, where the introduction of a new character provides a satisfying conclusion to the book.

If all of this gimmickry sounds daunting, it's not, thanks to the generous use of white space, and writing that is rich, honest, tender, humorous, and sometimes very explicit.

The National Post describes the book as “a tonic for readers tired of conventional narratives and inert prose.” The Financial Post finds it “akin to a text-based sculpture.”

You can read Stephen Marche's interactive short story, "The Missing Period of Lucy Hardin," at The Walrus.


Love and the Mess We're In won first place for its designer in the prose fiction category of the 2012 Alcuin awards.