Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Thomas Wharton, The Logogryph

If Thomas Wharton's novel The Logogryph isn't the strangest book you've read in a little while, you can just keep your unconscious to yourself.

At bottom, it's a fragmentary narrative that depends on its reader both to surrender to the fragmentation and to persist in teasing together the threads, thus celebrating not just fragmentation (yay, postmodernism) but also something like a old-school sense of connectedness (yay, Victorian fiction). There are some 30 pieces here, many of them seeming unrelated to each other, but several touch on the story of the Weaver family from Jasper, Alberta.

One of the little delights for me in this novel flows from how Wharton handles the inevitable worry about the relative priority we place on world and text. The caricature about postmodernism is that it privileges the textual over the material, the intellectual game over the business of life: that's a diminished, cartoonish version of such a powerful literary mode, but you hear it regardless. Anyway, this book works from all kinds of postmodern strategies, and yet as the "I" of the recurring stories looks out at the Rockies from a library window, "In some way it seemed that the inaccessible heights out there were intimately connected to the mysterious depths of these unknown books" (p.14). The world is implicated in the novel, and there's a clear pleasure taken in the depiction of a sensually experienced world.
Best. Author photo. EVER.

The Logogryph is fun even for those of us who find themselves reading an awful lot of nonfiction lately, is what I'm saying.

The longish chapter/section on Atlantean fiction was terrific, with the quiet joke that its great proponent was Rupert Brooke, the poet who in this chapter survived WWI and wrote movingly about Atlantis and its complicated culture (three genders, an intense focus on indigeneity, alternate history inside an alternate history, etc).

And the selections from the lost journals of Da Vinci; a tale about the invention (in China) of paper; a character who falls out of a novel into the world; two readers who annotate books subsequently deposited in second-hand bookstores to torment each other; entries under "A" in the index for an imaginary book ("Albacore tuna, 724-29; mention of in Proust, 738"); the mention of a novella published with a 27-volume appendix of everything edited out before publication….

And yet for all the games and technique, this is a sweet, open novel. Don't try to figure it out, because if you spend the necessary time with The Logogryph, it'll just come to life on its own. Or as Wharton's now-deceased alter-ego on Twitter might have said:

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Adam Leith Gollner, The Fruit Hunters

To paraphrase the great Norman Maclean, the world is full of weirdos, the number increasing rapidly the further one gets from Missoula, Montana. (He said "bastards," but the intertubes suggest that mostly people remember the reference as "assholes." Moving on, though.)

In The Fruit Hunters, Adam Leith Gollner introduces us to a cast of fruit-obsessed millionaires, loners, and other misfits, all of whom share a passion not just for fruit but for weird fruit, exotic fruit from all over the world. The real stars of the book, though, is the fruit, and so the book's subtitle is a clearer portrait of the book's subject than it is of my increasingly scattered recollection, a few very busy weeks since closing the covers: A Story of Nature, Adventure, Commerce and Obsession.

Ever since then, I've been buying unexpected fruit from assorted groceries (granadilla, dragon fruits, persimmons, etc). Not all of them have been pleasant, BC being a long way from these fruits' homes, but I've come to appreciate a little more the obsessiveness of Gollner's human subjects. If you're eating something whose flavour makes no sense to you, and yet you can tell could be incredibly appealing if you could just get a better specimen, why wouldn't you spend some time and energy seeking out a better specimen? And then another specimen, and then a better variety, and then maybe a visit to its home? And why not one that might grow in your greenhouse, orangery, espalier?

That way madness lies, true enough and clear, but say the names: monkey fruit, Grains of Paradise, coco-de-mer, rambutans, jaboticaba…. These are words to conjure by, and surely flavours, too. What's not to like about a little madness among friends like these, anyway?

Well, carbon footprints, for one thing, plus exploitation tourism and gluttony capitalism and competitive foodie wankfests, all of which Gellner takes the time to describe and shame.

Oddly, I don't know who to recommend should read this book -- fascinating, but less entrancing than I would've expected. Definitely for aficionados of farmers' market who wonder about alternatives, though, and about places far away.

Andrew Nikiforuk, The Energy of Slaves

Fun fact #1: In North America, about 27% of the total volume of would-be food is discarded without ever being eaten by humans.

Fun fact #2: The production, transportation, and storage of this never-eaten food accounts for about 2% of the continent's total spending on oil and electricity (Nikiforuk, pp.88-89).

We're living inside a leaky pipeline, in other words. Food banks, food insecurity, climate change: we do it to ourselves, and in the end, after all the hand-wringing and multi-variate analyses and flourishing rhetorical Actions, we give not a fuck, not really.

As regular Tyee contributor Andrew Nikiforuk makes painfully clear in The Energy of Slaves, the fossil-fuel economy over-reaches its grasp so far that there's just no hope. (His last chapter pretends otherwise -- locavorism! farmers' markets! pipeline protests! -- but it rang pretty hollow in my ears….) Hardly news, that, though we mostly keep living as if it'll all be fine eventually.

What's different and striking in this book is Nikiforuk's sustained assertion that economies are all about energy, and that while Western economies (and civilization) modernized impressively by commandeering the work and energy of human slaves, slavery was really only a dress rehearsal for the consumption of archived energy in our few hundred fossil-fuel years. This energizes what otherwise might read like a digression, Nikiforuk's chapter about economists, but his basic point is that we've built an entire culture that ignores, deliberately and pathologically, our absolute dependence on the cheapest of fuels. That includes all of our sciences, not just our corporations. "A once distinguished moral philosophy has degenerated into a bogus science whose experts offer predictions more inaccurate than daily weather forecasts" (p.131): it's not a fair comment on economics, entertaining as it might be, but on the other hand, do economic projections consistently account for the historical accident of fossil fuels and their rampant consumption?

This book isn't about climate change, either. That's a shadow behind all of this, clearly, but it's not the point of the book. If you're a skeptic on climate change, if such people genuinely exist, this book might still grip you: just pay attention to the consumption of fossil fuels, and the certainty that we'll run out of accessible fossil fuels eventually, and you'll be hooked as firmly as was this anthropogenic climate change believer.

I'm uncomfortable, I should say, by Nikiforuk's equation of human slavery and technological innovation: enslaving a human is not the same as burning a barrel of oil. I appreciate that from an energy perspective, it makes little difference whether the energy consumed is the captive force of a person or the composted carbon of an ancient marsh, but the enslaved person would beg to differ. And I can't just leave that be. Don't get me wrong, I'm not as fussed as some ("For this reviewer, Nikiforuk asks too much"), or the fascinating and insightful Alanna Mitchell, who strangely remarks of Nikiforuk that "His brain is like a bacon slicer," whatever that means, but I'm bothered.

What bothers me more, though, vastly more, is the profligate waste of the planet's accumulated energy store. Or as OPEC founder Juan Pablo Perez Alfonso once said, "We are drowning in the devil's excrement" (p.181).

Nikiforuk's "slavery" metaphor gets stretched to breaking, often, and other metaphors and descriptors might have been safer and more effective and less unproductively distracting, but overall the book's point is shatteringly clear. The Energy of Slaves is a provocative, essential work, even if you may have to persuade yourself to let ride the central conceit (slavery = fossil fuels).

Or if you'd prefer, there's always Nadeah's fun cover of "Mercedes Benz." There's always a reason to just live better, or wish you could. Anybody want to buy me a new car?

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Joseph Boyden, The Orenda

When I was a kid, I used to dream regularly that I had been killed: not just killed, but beaten to death and left on the grounds of Chase Primary School, my elementary school.

Whether this is the root or the cause of my neuroses, I can't tell, but I have a deep antipathy to representations of violence. It's not that I'm phobic about them, or offended, or indeed squeamish, but they bump me out of the narrative and out of my immersion with the film or literature. Presumably I'm an outlier, making this a pathological distinction that marks me as ripe for culling from the herd, but so be it.

And so went my reading of Joseph Boyden's acclaimed novel The Orenda. I'm not sure that I disagree with a scintilla of the praise that has been accumulating around The Orenda, because I can tell that it's genuinely a novel to amaze. This is a historical novel that reads immediately and intimately while still being the product of exhaustive research; it presents its narrative from three quite distinct points of view, each one of which feels fully realized, and each one of which was fully capable of sustaining its own novel; it's a novel of community and place and faith, and all the ways in which those terms can be understood oppositionally; and most importantly (in my view) it's about life and death in the face of overlapping cataclysmic changes that intersect in terrifying ways.

But it's also a novel stuffed full of periodically horrifying torture, or promises of torture to come, or explicitly declared hope at being able to survive torture with pride.

Clearly my discomfort stems in large part from my absolute separation from the lifeways that Boyden's writing about: the Wendat (or Huron) and the Haudenosaunee are not my peoples, settler that I am, and so Boyden quite rightly isn't writing for my outsider sensibilities. Or rather, he is, and he's expecting that I'm going to feel like the outsider. If in general I was okay with graphic depictions of violence, then I'd be able to assess the extent to which this book is successful in what I take to be Boyden's aim, but the problem is that I'm not.

And I should say, too, that I anxiously appreciate Christina Turner's worry that "a narrative has been created around The Orenda that is more comforting than unsettling to settler Canada." We're better people for having appreciated this novel, we settlers, maybe, but our obligation to decolonize this place doesn't end with literary prizes and Christmas handovers of The Orenda to our fellow settlers, for them to donate to next year's charity book drive.

It's an amazing novel, and for now, I'm seeing myself as deficient for not being able to appreciate it properly: violence does that to me, and especially torture. Sue me.