You comma Idiot, by Doug Harris. Goose Lane, 326 pp. ISBN 978-0-86492-630-2
You comma Idiot is, in short, the story of Lee Goodstone, small-time drug dealer and general layabout. One of his friends stands accused of murdering a 17-year-old girl, a rival is horning in on his drug business, and he has just inadvertently slept with his best friend’s girlfriend, by which I mean to say that, while he can’t claim the idea wasn’t entirely his, at least he wasn’t the instigator. Complications, understandably, ensue.
All this is given to us in the second person, a tricky gambit. Some reviewers have complained that the second-person litany of Lee Goodstone’s faults alienates the reader; no reader likes to be informed, page in and page out, that he is an idiot. But this misses the point. Second person narration does not, obviously, seek to tell us about ourselves; it’s a rhetorical device a narrator employs to persuade us to take a certain perspective on the viewpoint character. And this, in turn, may raise the question of just who is narrating, and why. It gets complicated.
You gotta be ambitious to try it, in other words. And to begin that attempt by calling out the best-known second-person narrative, that staple of creative writing texts, Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City … well, you gotta have guts.
Both You comma Idiot and Bright Lights, Big City feature protagonists who dabble with drugs — and won’t leave home without their sunglasses. But Harris is the bizarro-McInerney. McInerney’s characters are glamorous, while Harris’s are losers. McInerney’s narrator loses his wife; Lee Goodstone takes up with a woman who has left her boyfriend. And in what is surely not a coincidence, McInerney begins his novel by telling us what kind of guy his protagonist is not, while Harris takes great pains to tell us what kind of guy Goodstone is. Those reviewers who complain that Harris alienates the reader are missing the point.
Jay McInerney opens by making excuses: “You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are….” McInerney’s narrator argues that his character is better than this, that he doesn’t belong here, that this is not really him. Harris does precisely the opposite. “You’re the kind of guy who falls in love after one date,” he declares. “You’re the kind of guy who rehearses a conversation fifty times in his head and then blows it when it’s for real. You’re the kind of guy who….” And so on, and so on, and so forth, and so on: Harris devotes his entire opening chapter to ensuring that we know precisely what kind of a guy Lee Goodstone is, and the portrait isn’t pretty.
If McInerney’s narrator argues for absolution, Harris’s portrays a toxic self-loathing. But despite the litany of condemnation, Goodstone soon emerges through his actions as no idiot at all, especially when compared with the company he keeps. He simply doesn’t have faith that he can be anything more than what he is.
And this is where the problem lies: the novel itself, in a sense, seems to lack the faith that it can be more than what it is. The characters don’t emerge as fully formed; Harris seems content to leave most of them flat. Goodstone is so averse to taking himself seriously, and so singularly lacking in ambition, that he rarely emerges as anything more than a comic figure. Harris is a more subtle writer than he seems to be, as when Goodstone watches a child, still out playing after all the others have been called it; we’re given to understand that he could be watching himself, that he must either eventually go in, or exist forever as a kind of Peter Pan of the streets. But Harris continually undermines these effects by playing for the quick laugh, a laugh that is, unfortunately, sometimes forced. You comma Idiot seems not to be able to decide whether to be a purely comic novel, and so falls short of its promise.
How Insensitive by Russell Smith. Porcupine’s Quill, 258 pp. 0-88984-143-8.
I’m late to the party on this one; the book was published in 1994, and thanks to my usual literary time warp, I’m only reading it now. But it raises some questions that are interesting enough to post here, not least of which is whether Smith would like to forget ever having that hairstyle. I’ll bet he’s glad this edition’s out of print.
I’m sorry. That was insensitive of me.
How Insensitive, as it follows the travails of a young man in the big city, wandering drunkenly from one party to the next, meeting models, and so on, all in the early 1990s, reminded me strongly of Jay McInerney. Except that, I hasten to add, it reminded me of Jay McInerney when Jay McInerney was good. That is, the McInerney of Bright Lights, Big City, not the disappointing McInerney of Brightness Falls and then The Good Life.
I hasten to that particular clarification because, unlike the later McInerney, whose pages are clogged with exposition and whose prose is often simply mundane, Russell Smith’s sentences crackle along. His dialogue is good and he never succumbs to the urge to go back and explain things for the sake of the dopey reader. How Insensitive is sharp and funny, and its nomination for the GG was well deserved.
So I find myself wondering why McInerney became a big success, while Smith remains, in the class photo of Canadian novelists, in the second row, behind Atwood and Ondaatje and all the other popular kids, but in front of Whatshername and Whothehellisthat. It’s certainly not for lack of a good book.
I could chew on that one for a good long while. Is international success (Atwood, Ondaatje, Munro) a prerequisite to being invited to all the best parties? Does this usually spring from domestic success, as in the case of Annabel Lyon or Rawi Hage, who got shortlisted for everything in sight, or Joseph Boyden? And if the big awards are, in fact, the kingmakers of Canadian literature, then why do they continually elude funny books, books with contemporary settings, and so on? Do Canadian readers not like these things?
The questions that come to mind, then, are the same old questions.
The answer may be simpler. How Insensitive is, in Canlit, an outsider book, because Canlit prizes the outsider. Cape Breton, with approximately 0.5 % of the Canadian population, provides some 37.94 % of our literary settings; the remainder are provided by the likes of Moose Factory, Neepawa, and Dungannon. Canlit is all about the marginalized, and How Insensitive is not.
Oh, sure, Smith tries to fit in, by making Ted Owen a Maritimer by way of Montreal, and therefore an outsider in Toronto, but the fact remains that this is a novel about a straight white male in Toronto, who commits the terrible crime of insensitivity to the plight of cattle and thus falls afoul of right-thinking Canadians everywhere, or at least, right-thinking Canadians on the editorial board of a little magazine.
One of the things Smith’s satire exposes, I think, is Canlit’s distaste for satire. In short, this is a novel, at some level, about itself.