Sunday, October 16, 2016

"A fine foray"/ "Tonight's top story: we're all growing old"

Sept. 10, 2016 "A fine foray": I cut out this article by Robert J. Wiersema in the National Post on Jul. 31, 2010:

Stories: All-New Tales
Edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio
430 pp.; $29.99
Reviewed by Robert J. Wiersema

Fantasy writer Neil Gamain — the closest the literary world comes to a rock star — throws down the gauntlet in Just Four Words, his introduction to Stories: All-New Tales, which he edited with writer Al Sarrantonio. “What we missed,” he writes of contemporary short fiction, “what we wanted to read, were stories that made us care, stories that forced us to turn the page. And yes, we wanted good writing (why be satisfied with less?).

But we wanted more than that. We wanted to read stories that used a lightning flash of magic as a way of showing us something we have already seen a thousand times as if we have never seen it before”.

The difference between Gaiman and the average reader — who has long been calling for more literate, absorbing, narrative fiction — is that, as this anthology of 27 stories attests, Gaiman can deliver the antidote to this literary malaise. Stories is a powerful collection of new fiction from some of the best writers, both genre and literary, currently at work.

The blend of writers and styles means that Stories is a volume in which, literally, anything can happen, both within each story and from story to story. There is nothing predictable here, nothing staid or routine. And, perhaps more significantly, there’s not a single misstep, not a single story that can, or should, be skipped: Stories is a winner from cover to cover.

The majority of the stories in the anthology have some fantastic component, however slight, which allows for unpredictability and for a rewarding twist in the tale. It also allows writers to be seen in a perhaps unaccustomed light. Readers familiar with Jodi Picoult for her children-in-peril novels, for example, will assume they’re on steady ground with Weights and Measures, which follows the aftermath of a child’s death. That steadiness quickly fades, however as the mother and father begin to change, literally and physically, as a result of their grief.

Similarly, Walter Mosley is best known for his hard-boiled Easy Rawlins novels. Some of that voice carries over to Juvenal Nyx, but this is not a detective novel but a dark, passionate vampire story that will make Twilight-lovers blanch.

Other writers are writing solidly within both reader expectations and their comfort zone.

Gaiman himself weighs in with what feels like a traditional tale, The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains. His contribution has a quest, hidden treasure, mysterious islands and, at the close, a sense of what might almost be a moral teaching: that which you seek is not necessarily what you find.

That Chuck Palahniuk is represented with a skewed take on a pop culture icon will likely not come as much of a surprise: his Loser is a surreal, acid-addled journey through The Price is Right, which “still looks exactly like when you were sick with a really high fever and you stayed home to watch TV all day.” It’s not among his best stories, but it definitely satisfies, both in its startling conclusion and its immersive use of a drugged-out, dislocated, second-person point of view.

Readers will find their own favourites. Personally, it is the stories that address, in some way, the act of storytelling itself that I find the most powerful. Kat Howard’s A Life in Fictions, for example, is a strangely powerful account of what happens to a writer’s muse in both good times (when she is becoming different characters, taking on their traits and quirks) and bad (as when her world freezes, the writer suffering from writer’s block). The condition she imposes upon the writer in the story’s last page speaks volumes not only about the value of artistic creation but of its considerable costs to those caught in its wake.

That cost is also the subject of Michael Moorcock’s stunning Stories. It’s a bit of delightful dissonance that one of the most straightforward, unadorned stories in this collection comes from one of the most celebrated, unabashed writers of the fantastic of the last half century. Stories is a chronicle of the intertwined lives of writers, editors, their lovers and friends, spanning decades, an account of love and friendship, sex and death, hatred and loss. It’s about the power of art to unite and divide, and the value of art, finally, as an aspect of self, the importance of having “a few stories of my own to tell and some rotten bloody friends to remember.” It’s a beautiful, haunting story.

The trouble with this collection is simply that there’s so much to recommend it. I haven’t even touched on Joe Hill’s brilliant, off-kilter The Devil on the Staircase, or the sad joyfulness of Elizabeth Hand’s The Maiden Flight of McCauley’s Bellerophon, or Lawrence Block’s chilling “Catch and Release or … there’s simply too much. With Stories, Gaiman and Sarrantonio have curated a glorious, breathtaking treasure box of story: Indulge yourself.

 "Tonight's top story: we're all growing old": I cut out this article Katherine Govier in the National Post on Jul. 31, 2010:

Catherine O’Flynn has chosen for the subject of her second novel ( What was Lost, her first, was published in 2007) the deliberately unsexy topic of local television news, its poignancy and its perilous state. The place is Birmingham; the hero is the gormless but kind Frank Allcroft, a news presenter at Midlands TV.

Frank seems out of place at work, where his ambitious and deeply concerned co-anchor, Julie, wants to take the coverage from the merely banal to the provocative. Instead of new eco-friendly fire engines for Coventry, she feels they should cover the local lady who makes replicas of world landmarks out of clothes pegs and burns them on Bonfire Night. This year she has made a replica of the Sacred Mosque of Mecca.

We never find out if this goes to air, unfortunately. The novel is composed of very short chapters that jump in point of view from that of Frank, to his older and more glamorous ex-colleague, Phil, to Phil’s friend Mikey, and back to Frank’s childhood. It’s a quiet, eventless existence, despite the odd unclaimed corpse on a park bench: Frank takes his daughter to look at the buildings designed by his father, who he never really knew, and he makes frequent visits to his mother, Maureen, who is in a senior’s home called Evergreen.

Maureen is a charmless woman who refuses to be happy in her son’s presence, although he knows for a fact that a man called Walter can bring a beam to her face. The exchanges between mother and son are the best in the book, hopeless and rather funny:

Frank ignored this and looked over toward the window. “They could do with someone clearing up the leaves out in the grounds.”
“Maybe they leave them there deliberately. Maybe they think that dead leaves are exactly what we should be contemplating as we sit here waiting to fall off the branch.” “Mom …” “You see how you fare. You’ll be old one day. You see how you cope when all your friends are dead, and you senses are gone.”
“Your senses aren’t gone, Mom. You’re in excellent health …” “Ha. That’s a joke.” “… You’re seventy-two Mom — that’s nothing. They sit and talk in the lounge, they listen to music, they walk in the garden.”

“ ‘Why aren’t they screaming’ Frank, ‘Why aren’t they screaming?’ Do you know who wrote that?”
“Larkin. You quote it ever time.”

There are also some comic accounts of the antics of live television in Britain’s heartland: Presenters using a carrot to entice a guinea pig to pull a cart carrying an obese rabbit, celebrities visiting people in their home to get married couples to tell each other what they don’t like in their spouse in what is called tough love. This is described in the publicity material as satire: It isn’t satire, it has no bite, it is merely an alternately scorning and affectionate tribute to a dying form of television. It was perhaps never so alive, in Canada, but what local TV we had is dying in this country too, and I sometimes miss going to the station in Calgary to talk about a book, between episodes on eyebrow plucking and an interview with the Shriners about their parade.

But O’Flynn’s observations, in whatever spirit they are made, do not make a novel. The failure of town planning that has seen Birmingham redesigned every two decades in an attempt to get it right — one attempt by Frank’s father — also comes in for comment. But that is not the driving force either, here. We are intended to care about Phil’s death, under mysterious circumstances, about Mikey, about Frank who is apparently 43 but feels 75.

And that is difficult because he is so placid, so limp. What can you say about a man who answers “That’s understandable,” when a colleague expresses outrage? Who lets himself be known as “the unfunniest man on earth” just because he doesn’t want to hurt the feeling of an out-of-work joke writer? Nice guy, but. We come to understand how his cold father damaged both Frank and his mother. And we can celebrate to know that at least the caustic Maureen manages to spring herself not out of Evergreen entirely, but out of her branch, and relocate in a new one near the sea.

But we somehow doubt Frank has it in him to effect change. Still he does, in his steady, quiet way, work through the puzzle of Phil’s death and find himself with a valuable and life-altering piece of news. Then he decides to keep quiet.
Definitely in the wrong business.

The News Where You Are is an easy, pleasant read, and offers some insights about growing old, at 75, or at 45, or perhaps refusing to do so at all.

Katherine Govier’s most recent novel is The Ghost Brush (HarperCollins).

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