The Sentimentalists, by Johanna Skibsrud. 9781554470785.
A horse, long of face, its hooves clattering on the cobbles that overlay the bones of settlers long dead, of child victims of diptheria and German measles, its long face hanging from the arch of its long neck, walks into a bar.
And the bartender says, why so ineffably sad? And we all weep.
This is a joke, as told by a poet-novelist. And The Sentimentalists is a novel, as told by a poet-novelist: over-written, over long even at a mere 216 pages, and, thanks to the Giller Prize, over-praised.
It starts well. Skibsrud has an ear and an attention for the rhythm of a sentence, and the first 20 pages or so are rich and evocative. It seems well done. But with those 20 pages done, with the scene set and the actors introduced, one expects the novel to go somewhere, to do something. It does not. Instead, it drifts about, rather aimlessly, talking about itself. And the middle sags.
Those sentences soon seem too rich in commas, too wordy, too long; Skibsrud is using entirely too many words to say very little:
On those occasions, what I had feared most was only that the space I had felt in me so palpably then might remain all my life in the unbearably empty state in which it had arrived. So to find that, on the contrary, it could disappear completely — and without a trace — without ever having been filled; that it could be compressed so soundly within a body that inside would remain only the mechanical procedures of the lungs and the heart, was a great surprise.
Uh, what occasions were those?
At night, I lay up in Owen’s old bedroom where I had slept so many nights as a child and felt nothing at all, except for the static hum of electricity from the floors below. A sad and irreversible change had occurred, it seemed, and the great and open space which I had always felt within me, that I had thought, in fact, had been me, had disappeared, so finally that I could not hope, I thought, to resurrect it, or feel again that lightness at the exact centre of my heart as I had on so many occasions before. When, in that very room, I had harboured in me an expectation of a world so vast, and of such incomparable beauty, that I could feel it loosening the muscles of my throat; a disturbance of which I could hardly endure.
Ah, yes. Those occasions. I know them well.
This ceases to be a question of style, and becomes a matter of substance, or more properly, of its lack. Reading these sentences, their vague language, their aversion to the concrete and particular, is rather like attempting to read braille through oven mitts: you’re certain something’s there, but you’re damned if you can figure out what. And if the chief joy of this book is to be found in its language, you wonder why you need 200 pages of it; it is like listening to a symphony that consists solely of a pianist repeatedly hitting the same note.
It is not only in its lack of movement that the novel sags. It is also packed with redundancies. Things disappear both completely and without a trace. The narrator harbours in her expectations, as if there is some other place one might harbour them. The garden shed, perhaps? Where is the poet’s attention to language, the economy and force of the poetic line? Adrift in the stagnant middle of this narrative, senses muffled, it begins to seem that one is reading page after page of filler. The novel takes a full 100 pages to get up and get moving.
Even 60 pages in, we know nothing of the characters. And this seems to be Skibsrud’s point, that we cannot see inside of other people. But neither do we have any concrete sense of their outer lives. Nobody does anything; nobody says anything — dialogue, through the first half of the novel, is often reported indirectly. The narrator may tell us that her father laughs, but we never understand why. We never hear the joke.
Indeed, we never hear any jokes; one thing the reader will not find herein is a laugh, or even a smile. The horse walks into the bar and we all are ineffably sad, though we know not why, and we hope, or think, that the emptiness at the very centre of our hearts will one day soon be filled with the expectations that we keep hanging beside the hedge trimmer out in the garden shed. But it will not be so, for life is ineffably sad.
And here is the crux of it: novels of this ilk flout the narrative building code by ignoring such load-bearing beams as character and plot. They dramatize nothing; indeed, they place themselves above such concerns, lumping together drama and melodrama. They labour to convince us that they are more literary than literature itself. But The Sentimentalists, in its continual tone of sadness, falls prey to melodrama’s cousin, sentimentality. We do not live our lives in a fog of sadness. To pretend that we can, to repeatedly strike this same note for 200 pages, is emotional masturbation. Having thrown away the tools by which emotional effects are earned — the stuff of drama — the novel strikes desperately at that same sad note. And all that sadness, like the joke about the horse, is without force. The Sentimentalists grasps to make us sad because it fails to understand the truth: without joy, there can be no heartbreak.
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.
I’m getting hits, not surprisingly, from people looking for reviews of Alexander MacLeod’s Light Lifting. Well, I finally had time to read it, flying back and forth to Winterpeg, and….
Alexander MacLeod’s debut collection of short fiction, drawn from 15 years of writing for literary magazines in Canada, tempts you to indulge in the kind of superlatives that might be counterproductive in the age of hype; just how brilliant can it really be? Well, pretty damn brilliant, actually. Among the seven longish stories that make up this collection, there is not a single misstep. This book is that good.
These stories lead in one direction, dart down a side alley, and then return to themselves, without any bad welds or weak seams to give away their construction. “Number Three” erects the Chrysler minivan as a mythic object, while exploring the consequences of a devastating accident; “Adult Beginner I” finds teenaged lifeguards diving into the Detroit River from the roof of the Holiday Inn, as a swimmer goes out of her depth; and “Wonder About Parents” encapsulates, in staccato prose, the strange intimacies of parenthood. “Good Boys,” an apparently simple story about four brothers and the kid across the street, manages to be both funny and moving while avoiding any form of predictability.
Read it. Oh, yes. Read it.
(Disclaimer: I have a certain, obvious bias. But still … read it.)
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.
Century by Ray Smith. Biblioasis, 165 pp. ISBN 978-1-897231-51-7
I approach this novel – and yes, I’m calling it a novel, for reasons that I will eventually make muddled – with certain reservations, suspicious as I am of the desire for alternative structures, etc., fostered by the manifest failures of post-secondary education. That our universities take students who love books and turn out Masters of Arts who appear to hate reading is not to their credit; that the jaded reader, like the aficionado of hardcore pornography, is only aroused when the going gets strange does not in the least diminish the value of a straightforward story. Neither, to be fair, does this mean that Ulysses is pretentious horse shit. Suffice to say that many road apples litter the dead-end streets of theory. It pays to watch your step.
So now that’s out of the way.
Century successfully navigates that tricky territory between the conventional and the inaccessible, demanding the reader’s full attention, and rewarding it, while retaining enough mystery to sustain, I expect, many readings. You continually detect movement in your peripheral vision, things you can’t quite spot, no matter how quickly you turn your head. When, halfway through a novel, you find yourself thinking that, man, you just gotta re-read this thing at least once, well, that’s a damn good book.
How to approach it? Century, in essence, explores familiar territory in an unfamiliar way. Yes, this is a Canadian novel: a multigenerational saga that follows the repeated tragedies of a single family, whose women keep kicking the bucket against the sweeping backdrop of history. Of a century, in fact. Oh, it’s not quite canonical Canlit; it lacks a prairie landscape, wendigoes, and snow – but these are mere quibbles. The story, if you like, is conventional.
The storytelling is anything but. The timeline moves back, rather than forward, so the story is necessarily discontinuous, more so because Smith obscures the relationships between the characters. Names are not often mentioned; it is easy to miss who is whose parent, who is whose doomed daughter. Smith follows the family tree back through the generations without leaving a map. Each chapter is a jump cut; one does not lead back to the next, and consequently, one feels that they are separate stories.
But they aren’t. Patterns of behaviour and the concerns of the characters repeat themselves back through the generations. The sins of the parents are visited on their children; the same personal failures play themselves out again and again, to the point that you want to re-read the book just to see how the last chapter may play out in the first, in ways that perhaps you initially failed to recognize. This is, then, a single, unified narrative, not a collection of stories; it simply refuses to play itself out in the way we expect.
Henry James said that the only obligation of a novel was to be interesting. This one is fascinating.
And the writing. The writing is oh-so-artful, diction and syntax changing as we cast backwards in time; Smith does not allow himself to be trapped within the dictates of any particular style. This is a writer with a well-oiled gearbox, and he shifts gears smoothly without ever mistiming the clutch.
Also, it’s short. Writers of sweeping historical novels, take note: thine asses have been handed thee, upon a platter.
Read it. Now.
Regarding the Pain of Others, by Susan Sontag. Picador, 2003. 131 pages.
In Christian Frei’s film on James Nachtwey, War Photographer, we see Nachtwey’s viewpoint, courtesy of a small digital camera mounted on top of Nachtwey’s own camera. We crouch behind an overturned car as Palestinian youths throw rocks and Molotov cocktails and duck rubber bullets, listening to Nachtwey speak in a cool, detached voice-over:
Why photograph war? … It’s occurred to me that if everyone could be there just once, to see for themselves what white phosphorous does to the face of a child, or what unspeakable pain is caused by the impact of a single bullet … then they would understand that nothing is worth letting things get to the point where that happens to even one person, let alone thousands. But everyone cannot be there, and that is why photographers go there, to show them, to reach out and grab them and make them stop what they’re doing and pay attention to what is going on, to create pictures powerful enough to overcome the diluting effects of the mass media and shake people out of their indifference. To protest, and by the strength of that protest, to make others protest.
This is the ideological basis of war photography, a notion that Susan Sontag convincingly eviscerates in the opening chapters of Regarding the Pain of Others, her examination of the ethics of war photography. Depending on its audience, Sontag points out, the same photograph may be a protest against war or a call to arms. What we want to believe we accept at face value; what challenges our cherished beliefs, we dismiss as a fabrication. We may be stirred to anger, or we may be stirred simply to turn the page and look up the hockey scores.
This problem is not, of course, limited to photography; it applies equally to television news, to print and online journalism, and above all to essays written for The New Yorker by writers who brand themselves as coolly critical iconoclasts.
But Sontag reserves her criticism for photography, dipping at times into the same disingenuous bag of tricks she used in On Photography. She asserts, for example, that snapshots taken by anyone in the street “may compete with the best, so permissive are the standards for a memorable, eloquent picture” — a claim that is easily refuted simply by looking at “the best.” And this unsupported (and unsupportable) statement then allows her to absolve painters of her criticism, by dint of “the artist’s skill of eye and hand.”
One reads, in short, with frequent shaking of the head, and occasional derisive snorts. But just as in On Photography, Sontag also makes many good arguments. Her complaint against photography as call to conscience, as expressed by Nachtwey and others, is impeccably argued.
Why concentrate this critique on photography, when other media are equally ineffective? Because, Sontag argues, “all images that display the violation of an attractive body are, to a certain degree, pornographic.” Looking at war photography is gawking at traffic accidents, hoping to see blood and bone.
But, of course, so is reading sensational news stories and watching television news. And whatever “the artist’s skill of eye and hand,” a painting depicting suffering remains art, an aesthetic object that we look at in a gallery without concern for the actual events of whatever battle it depicts. At least the photograph — presuming that it actually depicts “the violation of an attractive body,” as most war photographs do not — is presented as news.
And how is one to respond to war? Is it more effective to take a camera into Sarajevo and use it to argue for intervention, or to take up residence there for the purpose of staging Waiting for Godot by candlelight, as did Sontag? How many people were moved by the photography of Christopher Morris, who evacuated himself from the besieged city after having a breakdown? How many were moved by Sontag’s production of Godot?
There is a sense in Regarding the Pain of Others that Sontag is backing away from some of the claims of On Photography, that she discovered in Sarajevo what a glib and facetious stance is deconstruction in the face of destruction. In the concluding chapters, this becomes explicit, as she self-consciously points to two of On Photography‘s arguments and argues against them.
“To speak of reality becoming a spectacle is a breathtaking provincialism,” she admits. “It universalizes the viewing habits of a small, educated population living in a rich part of the world, where news has been converted into entertainment … some people will do anything to keep themselves from being moved.”
This epiphany arrives only when the Manhattan essayist goes to live in Sarajevo. It’s a pity that Sontag didn’t leave her rich part of the world behind more often.
On Photography, by Susan Sontag. Picador, 1977.
Anyone with a serious interest in photography has probably encountered Sontag’s On Photography. I first read it about ten years ago, and thought I should re-read it as part of my homework in the run-up to the publication of Combat Camera. When you write a novel that deals extensively with photography, you should be prepared to talk intelligently about the subject. This is not a review, then. It’s simply a reaction.
On Photography is a serious and intelligent book that is continually thought-provoking. That the thoughts it provokes may often be along the lines of “You’re full of shit, Sontag” hardly diminishes it; one measure of its quality is the mental resources Sontag forces you to muster to argue against it.
At its best, On Photography is brilliant: page after page, it presents brilliant ideas concerning how we look at photographs, what photographs mean to us, and how photography alters our world.
At its worst, however, On Photography is disingenuous intellectual sleight of hand, a game of now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t in which Sontag continually shifts the goal posts to support her generalizations, and constructs houses of cards based on premises that she never fully examines.
Photography is a broad and complex subject. From Aunt Matilda’s snapshots of little Johnny’s birthday to Robert Capa’s photos of the first wave hitting Omaha beach, from the deliberately constructed work of Ansel Adams to the happenstance captures of unmanned surveillance cameras, from studio to street riot: all this is Sontag’s subject. From all this, she takes her evidence wherever she finds it, and applies it wherever it suits her.
For example, her insistence that photography is inherently aggressive, a premise that seems sensible when you consider Bruce Gilden popping his flash in your face on the street, but seems somewhat less so when the happy tourist couple asks you to take their picture with their camera. Oh, but that’s apples and oranges, you say; Sontag isn’t talking about holiday snapshots. Except that she often is, especially when critiquing photography as an acquisitive activity through which we attempt to collect the world — a context very close to that in which she calls it aggressive.
It is easy to prove anything when you’re selective in this way. Fruit are sour, for example; consider the lemon. Never mind the apple, the peach, the pear, or the lemon’s close relative, the orange. I’m going to keep you distracted by talking about lemons just long enough to get your head nodding in accordance with this notion that fruit, in general, are sour. Then we can move on.
Sontag constructs houses of cards, such as the notion that we perceive photographs as more real than reality, a claim that rests (in part) on the fact that survivors of traumatic events often say it was just like a movie. Look, says Sontag: we don’t feel that the event was real unless it was like a movie! But this is not what those people are actually saying — by comparing events to a movie, they’re either saying that it seemed unreal, as a movie is, or they’re admitting that their only other experience of trauma is through film. Specious interpretations of this sort pop up too often in support of suspect ideas.
And those generalizations! All photographs are touching if they’re old enough; it is a fact that many superb photographs are made “by photographers devoid of any serious or interesting intentions”; nobody has ever “discovered ugliness through photographs.” We read often this, many of that, and so on, with never a scrap of supporting evidence to suggest that often is not, in fact, occasionally, that many is not a few, that all is, in fact, all.
It’s natural to finish this thing feeling somewhat manipulated. I’m reminded of an anecdote Thomas McGuane told of Sontag: he had read a book she blurbed enthusiastically, and when he met her, he thanked her for her recommendation. She sneered that it was a very bad book; when he asked why she’d given it such a glowing blurb, she said that she wanted people to find out just how bad it was for themselves. This was a woman who kept copies of her published essays in her purse and handed them out to impress people at parties. It is not difficult, in this light, to see parts of On Photography as disingenuous exercises in self-promotion: look at me, I’m an intellectual.
And you can tell I’m an intellectual, because I insist that all obvious things are untrue:
Photography implies that we know about the world if we accept it as the camera records it. But this is the opposite of understanding, which starts from not accepting the world as it looks. All possibility of understanding is rooted in the ability to say no.
This is Sontag tipping her hand, as she also does here:
Anything can be separated, can be made discontinuous, from anything else: all that is necessary is to frame the subject differently.
Pick a card, any card, and I’ll show you just how wrong all your ideas are.
Sontag is deeply skeptical of humanist photography, which aspires to show us that at some level we’re all members of the “family of man”; she’s deeply infatuated with Diane Arbus, whose photography is a catalogue of human freaks. Humanism, she insists, is sentimental — and therefore, it must also be untrue. Arbus is the real deal; we’re all freaks, suffering in a permanent state of alienation.
It’s a point of view belonging to a certain time and place: to New York in 1977, and to that circle of thinkers so afraid to be labelled sentimental that they actively seek the opposite. But science, a field not known for deeply sentimental thinking, supports the humanist premise, and the view that we’re all alienated freaks belongs not to humanity but to it’s context, to the times and places where it becomes true. The fact that humanism can be sentimental does not mean that it must be sentimental, nor that it’s premise is false.
On Photography is not aging gracefully. Two of its key ideas, points to which Sontag continually returns with hammer in hand, have been overtaken by events. Photographs are no longer treated as precious relics, in the digital age; they have become disposable because of their sheer volume. And this was becoming true even in the 1970s, although Sontag failed to take note of it. The Polaroid was a disposable photograph.
And photography is no longer a “bourgeois” activity in an age where everyone owns a camera — indeed, it is no longer a “Western” activity, as international photojournalism has increasingly relied on local stringers. In fact, photography was not a “Western” activity in 1977, either; it was only that the work of Indian photographers, for example, was not seen by New York intellectuals who perceived the world as terminating just beyond the boundaries of Manhattan.
This, perhaps, is the key weakness of On Photography: it seems to be unaware that the one thing that is constant in the world of photography is change. It is so fixated on describing how we look at and think about photographs that it never considers the more important question of how our understanding of photographs may be changing, and in turn, changing us.