Monthly Archives: December 2012

Style No. 46: Clumsy

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Well, it isn’t really my thing — writing and all that. Though I have updated my Facebook status semi-frequently. Does that count as literary experience? Surely it’s worth something. But my god! Here I am, boring you all. Status updates may not be such a credential after all. Can’t even get to the point.

But that’s just it. I need to get to the point, to commit this tale to the screen. Or should I still say the page? More of a classic expression. Is that what people still go in for, though — classic expressions? Either way, I’ve seen something, and it demands immortalization in letters. It all began with a young boy in orange.

Oh no. I’ve led you on. The pressure’s mounting in my throat, I can feel it. Choking me like a crumpled page of clichés stuffed down my gullet by an angry reader. How can I follow up on that suspenseful opening? I’m not sure I know how to manage the transition. I see the limitations of status updates now. You never do get to the transition there.

Well then I’ll just say it. The boy in orange blew his whistle. And he had a friend who, arm slung around him, eyed the distant crowd. (Actually, this paragraph isn’t getting off to a bad start. I’m quite pleased. But what about this parenthetical, is it an intrusion or a pleasant detour? How to know? Damn it, I’d better just go on.)

Subsequent to this observation, I saw a wrinkled grandmother perspiring like a horse tongue — if you’ll permit the metaphor. I hope it doesn’t strike you as bizarre, and if so I apologize. But perhaps the apology is doing more harm than repair. Maybe I should move on.

Right. So beneath a shawl on this old woman’s head sat, perfectly balanced, a secret object. What could it have been? Of which nefarious scheme might it have formed a part? Well, I’m sorry but I don’t really know. I suppose I haven’t the imagination to invent something. I’m not some grand novelist, after all. You can’t expect too much. As a matter of fact, if you keep pressuring me like this I won’t continue at all.

Where was I? Goodness, I’m flustered now. My fingers tremble on the keys. Maybe it’s because we’re at the ending. How am I supposed to wrap it all up? Well, you can’t expect me to know — status updates never need wrapping up, do they? I suppose I’ll just spit it out, then. There was a man. He was strange. He was knowing. And he was looking the other way.

THE END.

I quite like the way that turned out. Maybe I’m more of a writer than I thought. But why was it again I needed to write this story? Hmm. I forgot. Well, goodbye.

Montmartre at night. Or should I say something more interesting? Something like 'The blood of Montmartre's glowing establishments spilling forth into the darkness of its cobbled lanes'? Or is that a bit too much? Well, either way I clicked this in Paris in 2011.

Montmartre at night. Or should I say something more interesting? Something like ‘The blood of Montmartre’s glowing establishments spilling forth into the darkness of its cobbled lanes’? Or is that a bit too much? Well, either way, I clicked this in Paris in 2011.

Style No. 45: Apostrophe

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O keyboard! How your lustrous chiclets bow before me, humble purveyors of the tale of orange and friendship. Didst thou ever imagine, in thine alphabetical glory, that the story would take a turn toward the darkness? And that you, o innocent and sleek instrument, would bear the brunt of transmitting by your svelte keys the arrival of an old and troubled mother, her luggage garishly stowed atop her head like a thieve’s toque? Nay, such things no doubt remained unimagined as you were assembled, bit by bit in the steaming factory, with dreams of marking words of peace and glory. Let us then not dwell upon the advent of a strange man looking knowingly the other way, for the strokes that brought his appearance to this very page surely burn your soul with sorrow.

O how you art blue and wheelèd in thine glory. Clicked this in Mali, 2011.

O how you art blue and wheelèd in thine glory. Clicked this in Mali, 2011.

Review: The World by Bill Gaston

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Review: The World by Bill Gaston

The World?” a friend of mine chuckled, noticing my holiday reading. “What kind of title is that?”

As it turns out, quite an apt one which resonates on many levels through this affecting book.

The story revolves around Stuart Price, a lonesome divorcé whose house burns to the ground when, irony of ironies, he barbecues his mortgage papers after finally paying the house off. More than this, he’s sunk his lump-sum pension into it, and he’s forgotten to pay his house insurance. So the book opens with Stuart — retired, divorced, penniless, houseless, and pensionless — watching his world burn.

This almost irreverent beginning is a sign of things to come. Indeed, tragic situations met with bemused acceptance is something like Gaston’s modus operandi in this novel. But his protagonist’s irony isn’t a ragged sarcasm that veers into unfeeling. Rather, it heightens the experience of Stuart’s helplessness, and makes you ache all the more. I closed this book with a decidedly broken heart.

Having nothing but an old Datsun, Stuart takes to the road to visit an old friend, Melody, who he inexplicably wants to see. They haven’t been in touch for decades, and his remembrances of their thrilling camping trips, witty conversations, and elaborate meals are brought forth in great detail as he makes his way from Victoria to Toronto — in the process destroying his car, catching lice, nearly sleeping with a humpbacked woman, and being charged at by a maddened hitchhiker. Not to mention winding up in jail.

This is a wild and tragic road trip, but by page 140 Stuart’s obsession with Melody is somewhat irksome — particularly as it had  little explanation.

But then two things happened. First, I realized his obsessing attenuated the dullness of his existence through memory of lively times. On reaching retirement, Stuart is a mousy depressive, and his ironic reservedness is grating (but also very real). Melody is his only link to something like fun, and as a symbol of longing her role is more justified.

Secondly, the book shifted perspective. Arriving in Toronto, we now see Stuart through Melody’s eyes. And given that we know far more than she about how desperate he is to rekindle their tenuous connection, this is interesting. Things are complicated too by the fact that Melody is dying of cancer and is planning on taking drastic measures to deal with it.

Changing the point of view not only breathes fresh air into the narrative but has a cumulative effect. Because Melody is now spending her time with Stuart, whose mind we know intimately from Part I, every interaction has a double meaning — how Melody takes it, and how we imagine Stuart must feel it at the same time.

The third and final part of the book is told from the perspective of Melody’s father, Hal, who suffers from Alzheimers. The snowball effect of dramatic irony is at its height in this poignant, fragmented section, as Stuart and Melody have spent the middle third of the book paying him visits in his care facility and reading to him. Decades prior, he wrote a novel called The World, which he can no longer remember, and they are introducing him to it as if for the first time. (Or is it?)

This brings back the resonance question. For, the title of Gaston’s novel is certainly linked to this fictive novel. The book itself is about a tiny island that was a colony for Cantonese lepers in the 19th century — a place those who lived there referred to as “the world.” This gives a clue to what Gaston is driving at: the circumscribed, individuated experience of life.

Beyond this nested narrative, Gaston’s book is about what the world is from a subjective viewpoint. Everyone abides in his own world, and it can all come crashing down so easily.

In this regard, the novel’s design is ingenious. In section one, Stuart loses his material world: his belongings, his money, his job. Literally everything he owns is destroyed, right down to his car and glasses.

In section two, Melody loses her body, ravaged as it is by a cancer that robs her of sense pleasures — in particular, the ability to swallow food. This is especially heartbreaking for a foodie.

And Gaston to goes to great lengths  — too great, perhaps — to cast her as a gourmet. Here is one of the rare cases where he flirted with tedium. There is only so much one can read about ghost peppers, smoked mackerel, fiddlehead portobellos, lemon-stuffed pheasant, kimchi tempura, bison barbecue, Korean sardines, oatmeal stout, and fried goose meat before it feels more like a menu than a novel.

But this may all be meant to heighten the pain when she has to pour tinned slop into a tube piercing her stomach. It’s a heartbreaking and sobering loss.

Finally, Melody’s father, Hal, is losing his mind. He doesn’t recognize his daughter, or Stuart. And he thinks he’s living in a Nepalese monastery where the Filipino caregivers are Tibetan refugees. He is afraid. He’s using all the Buddhist advice he learned in the 14 years he spent in Asia before he got sick — a period of escape that had no small effect on Melody’s life — but everything is falling apart and he is powerless to make sense of it. His world is continually being unmade.

So these three worlds — material things, body, and mind — are all at risk. Watching Gaston’s characters deal with these (mostly unstoppable) challenges is worthwhile and touching. This is a book that bears reading.

Each of the characters irritated me in their own way, I must admit. But I respected them. And by the end, I really liked them all.

More than that, I felt for them. The emotional heft of this book snuck up on me. I wasn’t expecting it — even halfway through, I wasn’t — but I can still feel them in my chest. Stuart, Melody, and Hal. It’s a haunting novel.

Stylistically, The World is well-crafted. Gaston knows how to put a sentence together, understands how to string words so don’t stumble over them. More than this, so that — sometimes — you dance over them.

He’s cool, pliant, and witty. A wry humor pervades every page. The man is a fine writer.

He’s also an organic narrator. His story doesn’t smack of contrivance or melodrama, the way so many do. Reading The World is to go on a strange and natural journey.

It’s a journey that’s understated and bittersweet. But it’s one well worth the trouble. Bill Gaston‘s The World is not a novel to let slip by unremarked.

Style No. 44: Philosophical

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How does the epistemology of colour differ from the ontology of orangeness? The boy wondered as he conducted a phenomenological inquiry of sound’s relation to being via the medium of a whistle. His friend — or his companion, for in a lifeworld of discrete consciousnesses the relations of beings, even in the face of repeated friendly displays, remain notably ambiguous considering the chasm of lonesome individuation separating one from all — gazed at the crowd in the distance, examining it for indications concerning the verities of sociological being-in-the-world.

Meanwhile, an example of the paradox of temporality — a woman whose appearance was old and yet whose previous existence couldn’t strictly be proven due to the fictive nature of time’s linear passage — walked by with a curious object hidden atop her head.

At the same time, behind them (to speak relatively, for there absolute notion of behindness is a conspicuous falsity) a man — we won’t call him strange, for following Camus we can consider strangeness a hallmark of being and thus a vacuous vocable — looked the other way with a certain epistemological certitude.

Conventionally this inside one of the gates of Lille, France. But in ultimate philosophical terms, it's just a photograph.

Conventionally this is inside one of the gates of Lille, France. But in ultimate philosophical terms, it’s just a photo.

Style No. 43: Ghostly

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I never asked for any of this. I was simply minding my own business, out for a walk. There was a great crush of people agitating down the road, and I thought I’d have a look. But nothing could’ve prepared me for what I saw in the end.

At first I felt a rush of wind. A cool air blowing down my back. The weather was sticky-hot, so it shocked me. I turned around, but there was nothing, no one. So I turned back. Then it happened again.

This time, I spun quickly and caught a glimpse of something strange. A shimmering light, an orange heat wave. And a sound — a haunting noise, difficult to place. Like a vacant, low whistling.

My first impression was that the play of bending light looked like two boys arm in arm. But I didn’t have time to double-check because someone crashed into me, and I flew face-first to the pavement. When I turned up my bloodied nose to see who’d knocked me down, there was no one. Only that chill wind again.

Gripped with fear of unknown spirits bent on tormenting me, I sprung to my feet and ran. But I didn’t get ten feet before smacking into an old woman with a strange object tucked beneath her headshawl. “I’m so sorry, ma’am,” I stammered, glancing left and right to see who’d witnessed this embarrassing spectacle. Luckily, there was no one. Just a solitary man looking knowingly the other way.

After the ghostly incident I was in need of repose and took crosslegged to a beachside log. (Kerala, India, 2011).

After the ghostly incident I was in need of repose and took crosslegged to a beachside log. (Kerala, India, 2011).

Style No. 42: Alliteration

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Two tiny pre-teens talk together, tumbling toward a tumult of total strangers. Between the two, the timid one toted a whistle, which he took to his teeth, putting air into it. The alternate youngster tightly trailed the top of his twin’s two tentacles with the tuber-like extension of his own torso. Simultaneously, toward their posteriors trolled a troubled aunty whose top was too tall due to a secret tucked toward her temples. And at the identical time, a tenebrous stranger stared astutely toward the opposite street.

Painted deity towering toward two cots together in a hotel. Took it in 2011, Varkala Beach (Kerala, India).

Painted deity towering toward two cots together in a hotel. Took it in 2011, Varkala Beach (Kerala, India).

Style No. 41: Zombie

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A young boy in a zombie-repellent orange t-shirt blows pensively on what looks like a whistle. But it’s actually a small frag bomb, which he hurls into the crowd of raging undead milling in the distance, dismembering a half-dozen groaning zombies and one undead cow. His friend clings to him for dear life and observes the hungry crowd in the distance as the exploded flesh of the zombies is blown across the whole decaying congregation.

Meanwhile, a nervous grandmother approaches from behind with something strange concealed under her headscarf. “Are you alright, madam?” asks the boy. To this, she growls maniacally like a tortured wolf, menacing them with her gangrened hands and wretched yellow nails. Just then the headscarf falls to the ground, revealing her swollen zombie brain pulsing up from her open skull.

“Run!” shouts the boy. But it is too late. They cannot go forward, lest they become appetizers at a zombie picnic. And they can’t turn back, for she is upon them.

Suddenly a strange man who’d been looking knowingly the other way bursts onto the scene and withdraws a glistening scimitar. “This zombie grandma’s getting ahead of herself,” he says. Then he raises his wide blade to the sky, and with one deft motion cleaves her undead body at the neck. Her rotting head rolls down the gentle slope of the street and into the crowd, where it’s ravaged by a hungry pack of rancid corpses.

This is an example of a being who would maintain a cool head in the event of a Zompocalypse. We could all learn something from him.

This is an example of a being who would maintain a cool head in the event of a Zompocalypse. We could all stand to learn something from him.