Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Bill Gaston, The World

Bill Gaston doesn't have to say it in The World, because most of the people likely to read this ingenious novel will have learned our lesson already from Thomas King: the truth about stories, wrote King in his volume of Massey lectures, is that's all we are.

In The World, Gaston cycles through the linked and interwoven stories of three separate characters, plus two layers of metafictional text, both of which may somehow map, inexplicably, and perhaps metaphorically, onto the life of one of the characters. Reviewers seem to take the view, where they don't love the book, that Gaston has too many moving parts in play here, that add up to too slight an achievement.

Not unlike a Rube Goldberg invention, I guess, but who's going to complain about the genuinely Goldbergian, right? Party poopers.

The first section of The World gives us the tale of the hapless Stuart Price, whose life started going all to hell five years before the novel's timeline. After the self-inflicted catastrophe that kicks off the plot, Stuart decides to visit his old friend Mel, or Melody, who lives in Toronto and who he hasn't seen in 25 years. (As one does.) One thing leads to another, and by the time he makes it to Toronto, well, let's just say that Stuart has hit bottom: the nothing that is, a kind of unwitting and unwilling achievement of Buddhist enlightenment through ignorance and bad luck.

And then we get Mel's story, from the moment that she sees Stuart again. She's suffering terribly, facing death from an illness that has been consuming her for eight years as well as watching her father's rapid disintegration with Alzheimer's, but she finds a complicated relief in the careful construction of her own funeral and wake, particularly the menu. Unlike Stuart, who finds himself dragged toward nothingness, she manages to welcome the approach of her own nothingness.

And then there's Hal, Mel's father, whose dementia means that his story makes little direct sense while we're reading it. Since turning 40, Hal has spent most of his life as a practicing Buddhist, but the uncontrollable effects of Alzheimer's anchor him even more fully to the practices of mindfulness than did his conscious efforts.

Via Dhamma Scribe
All three of these stories, in other words, depict the stripping away of worldly things.

The metafictional layers continue the theme, with the story of a young history professor who hires a beautiful young Chinese woman, as one does, to translate some manuscripts he has received from the D'Arcy Island leper colony. I'm not going to give any of that away, but I confess to really enjoying the slightly wooden, slightly fanciful, painfully recognizable schemings of the academic's rich imaginary life.

But the last couple of pages? Yergh…. I'm just not happy when a densely plotted novel, like Larissa Lai's Salt Fish Girl or Douglas Coupland's Girlfriend in a Coma, wraps up with an overly poetic conclusion. Like those novels, The World ends poetically rather than realistically, and while the Author's Q&A in my book club edition explains some of the rationale behind Gaston's decision, I don't know quite how I feel about it. Presumably I can ask him tomorrow night at book club, but he's the boss of two club members, which might make it a little awkward to gripe much.

Maybe best not to open an author-hosting book club meeting with the old "thumbs up or thumbs down?" group review.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Luanne Armstrong, The Light through the Trees

Nature writing is an embarrassingly full genre, with far more good books than any of us will ever have time to read in each of its manifold varieties. Not everyone reads it, of course, and some people hate it, some people even hate nature itself, but for those of us who persist, we're constantly failing to read just the right book.

Most of you should, therefore, read Luanne Armstrong's The Light Through the Trees: maybe read it in the summer, because much of it's about summer, but I do love a winter book that reminds me summer's on its way. And for most confirmed readers of nature writing, this will be the right book for you, one day, even if it's not today. Get a copy, hold onto it, and wait for the time.

Briefly: Armstrong is a farmer and writer who lives now, in her 60s, on the British Columbia property where she was born. This book blends, provokingly, thoughts on writing and the writing life, on farming and food security, on colonialism and nostalgia, on real estate and the imaginary. The singular thread linking these topics is the intellectual fierceness of Armstrong herself, and she's a narrator and companion I really enjoyed (even if I'm not sure her neighbours would like some of the characterizations applied to them!).

Her key insight is, both simply and profoundly, that writers have always thought and written about matters related to what she at Armstrong at one point refers to as "human/non-human interaction," there being no way to cleanly describe the interface, relationship, obligations, etc. that exist (or ought to exist) between humans and nature, the environment, local ecosystems, the watershed…. Anyway, writers have always spent a great deal of time thinking about this interaction, and they need to keep doing this. Indeed, readers need to keep upholding their side of this bargain:
"… it is a necessary and crucial task to revisit this area of thought and ask ourselves what is worth keeping, and what needs to be re-thought, and what needs to be written." (p.168)
The immediate context is simply that we're governed by ethical systems whose bases were developed a very long time ago; we're living in a different world now, where humans have had an immense and unpredicted impact, and all our systems need re-thinking. Armstrong wants to start with writing and with farming, and after reading this book, I'm even more inclined to agree with her than I was before.

Wonderful book, highly recommended!

And that's the end of the review, but I can't help closing with a digression that's not entirely irrelevant.

At one point in the book, Armstrong writes of having attended, "feeling skeptical, … a university conference on literature and the environment" (p.122). She writes very effectively of her irritation at one of the panels, an irritation I've felt many times myself at such conference, and then moves on to other things. The thing is, I was the on-site host for that conference, which was a curse and a joy, as was the job of ASLE's organization host, and one of my favourite small memories is about Luanne Armstrong.

You see, one of our evening lectures featured Klah-hisht-ke-is (a.k.a. Chief Simon Lucas) and Jeannette Armstrong, and it was amazing. (You can watch their lectures online here.) I mean, it was just fantastic, transformative, mind-opening, all the rest of it: not all the American academics seemed ready for it, so maybe there's something special about the Canadian version of blending literature and environment, but plenty of attendees were clearly entranced.

And one of those was Luanne.

She approached Jeannette Armstrong after the lecture had ended, after a group of well-wishers had departed, so overcome with emotion she could barely speak. They spoke for a time together, not about overly consequential matters, but such things as the accident of sharing a last name while from different cultures, but genuinely and warmly, as writers and thinkers and humans in British Columbia. This one moment, I knew right then, encapsulated everything I'd wanted to achieve with this conference. I hadn't achieved it, indeed I'm sure that I've never quite understood what on earth I was trying to achieve, really, but still. This little interaction, I carry around still as kind of a defining memento for my career. I've never told that story before. But ever since, I've smiled every time I've seen Luanne Armstrong's name on something!

Sunday, January 05, 2014

Charlie Higson, The Enemy

I'm not quite at the point where someone's going to have to bring me warm milk and watch over me as I sleep, but Charlie Higson's The Enemy is seriously scary. I avoid parties, because they're fine without me, and a popular-genre-with-a-twist novel usually deserves some mockery, but this The Enemy series? Yikes. Also, whoa.

Our scene is London, round about now: 18 months ago, everyone over fourteen years of age developed some kind of disease that turned them into zombies. No one knows what happened, though there are lots of theories, and all we see are isolated groups of kids with no future, no plan, no real defenses. They're Lord of the Flies hard on each other, but internal conflicts are a long way from being important enough to matter in this reality.

The kids still struggling to survive call the zombies "mothers" and "fathers" (so awful!), and the kids' lives are entirely consumed by avoiding or killing the grownups. The killing is gory and detailed and gruesome, plus nearly constant, but the grownups are so grotesque and blood-thirsty that you don't really mind. Well, sure, problems arise when you remember that you're a grownup yourself, but come on, they're zombies, so.... And when the kids die, and lots of kids do die, there's far less detail: this may be what Higson means in his interviews when he says it's tough to get the gore balance right.

The Enemy is a popular-genre-with-a-twist novel, and like I said, this sort of thing deserves mockery, but I just couldn't step reading. If you start, and if you're okay reading about massive disasters and violence against children and appalling darkness, you're not going to stop reading this novel. I don't know that I need to read the next one, unless somebody tells me it's somehow life-changing, but I don't see that happening. Good stuff, but so many books, you know?

Incidentally, there's a pretty great YouTube teaser video, noted in the book as perhaps the first clue that something was happening in the world: check it, if you dare! It's meant to be taken as real, inside the novel's world.

Friday, January 03, 2014

Brian Clegg, Armageddon Science

Disaster nonfiction is a genre unto itself, sometimes called disaster porn, and Brian Clegg has provided a very handy reference guide to the principles behind such disasters in Armageddon Science: The Science of Mass Destruction.

Nanobots! Aaah!
In general, Clegg argues that we shouldn't worry much about scientists, because they mean well, and we should be able to remediate most of their most serious future screw-ups. He's reasonable, and logical, but in the end I don't know if I trust his comfort with science. Maybe I'm just not inside the circle of trust, science-wise, or I'd see that the safeguards really are potent enough, but this particular English prof has some commitment issues in this area.

With nanobots, for example, Clegg chillingly describes the (hypothetical) experience of being flayed alive by grey goo flowing over your body, as well as the risk of military nanobots being far more efficient at massacring civilians rather than military targets (since soldiers would presumably have countermeasures). It's terrifying, but Clegg simply presumes that "nanobots [would be] programmed with a limited lifespan--otherwise it's not clear why the destruction would ever stop" (p.188). Right, I say, right: that's what I mean by the term "armageddon," that the destruction would be absolute.

Without a qualm, Clegg thinks they'll be utterly banned, writing confidently that "the international community would act to suppress their use" (p.188). How did that work out with landmines, I wonder? Did they become a problem?

The extrahuman causes of disaster, though, I agree with Clegg about: a supervolcano would almost certainly end the human experiment, and we're in serious trouble with climate change assured to continue. (Climate change is anthropogenic, so it's not truly extrahuman, but it's not a single event, like a catastrophic bioterrorist attack would be, for example, or Rise of Planet of the Apes.)

Overall, it's a good book to spend some time with: it didn't hook me the way I expected it would, but I'm not sure why. Oddly, I felt almost entirely meh about Armageddon Science, even though it seems useful. So … yeah. Browse before buying, I guess!

Clegg's interview with Salon is a good way to get short hints at several of the issues addressed in Armageddon Science. Not exactly a substitute for the book, but useful.