Monthly Archives: July 2013

Review: Caught by Lisa Moore

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Caught by Lisa Moore. House of Anansi, 2013. $29.95. ISBN 9780887842450. Thanks to Anansi for a review copy of this work.

Caught by Lisa Moore. House of Anansi, 2013. $29.95. ISBN 9780887842450. Thanks to House of Anansi for a review copy of this work.

Lisa Moore is approaching something like legend. After her Canada Reads win, her Commonwealth Writers’ Prize victory, and her name perennially floating on the finest longlists  — Booker, IMPAC Dublin, and Giller, to name a few — she seems unstoppable. Caught won’t do anything to slow her down.

The novel has an action movie premise — a drug runner who busts out of prison and flees from the cops to make one last score — but a psychological depth that’s profoundly moving. In this respect it’s a rare bird: a book about driven criminals and haggard policemen that defies cops-and-robbers clichés and delivers a narrative as reflective as it is rousing.

The story follows David Slaney, a Newfoundlander who slips out of a Nova Scotia prison the 14th of June 1978, on the eve of his twenty-fifth birthday. He has served four years after a botched smuggling operation with his childhood friend and partner-in-crime, David Hearn, which saw them snagged off the coast of Newfoundland with two tons of weed. Now with dogs and squad cars sniffing at his heels, all he’s got is a prayer and a plan: get to Vancouver to meet Hearn, then get to Colombia to buy more marijuana.

The title, of course, hints at the end. But with a fugitive-centred book entitled Caught, Moore seems to suggest it doesn’t matter if we know the ending in advance. Patterson — the sweaty, self-doubting policeman assigned to Slaney’s case — alludes to this as he ponders death at a Mexican bullfight: “The best stories, he thought, we’ve known the end from the beginning” (272). This topples crime genre code, and is a provocation. After all, if we know what’ll happen, why read? In laying her cards on the table from the cover onward, Moore issues an invitation: find another reason to turn the page. Set aside your plot-worship and the logic of ‘What happens next?’, and get cozy with literature’s other facets. Maybe take a shine to her phenomenally crisp sentences.

Of course, some readers may be whiffing escapism, and that would be fair enough. The story has its holes, and it appears Moore cares little for penning a plot-driven book. Lyricism and well-hewn prose seem her main concerns. If you like that, you’ve got a treat in store. If you don’t, you’ve been warned. Still, the novel has a solid story, and is worth reading even if you have little patience for “literary” books.

Speaking of literary writing, here’s a sample of Moore’s seductive prose. It’s a description of Slaney’s hideout about above a Guysborough bar that “had strippers once a week and… sponsored a school basketball team” (5):

The test pattern was on the television. An Indian chief with feathered headgear, his profile of bone and forbearance. There was a bookshelf with miniature figurines of woodland animals, perhaps two hundred of them that had been collected from boxes of Red Rose tea. The figures sat on the peeling vinyl skin of the pressboard shelf as if they were climbing hills and descending into valleys in a great exodus. (27)

There’s real pleasure in reading Moore’s sentences. Her style is clear, lean, and thoughtful. Caught is a book with few commas and short paragraphs. Your eye slides down the page like maybe you’re on the run yourself. But the quick pace was surely slow in design; the words are well-chosen and rarely self-indulgent (a slurp of hot coffee should never be “an amplified susurration of scalding liquid” (62), in my opinion — but such wordiness is rare in this splendid novel).

Splendid writing aside, what Moore seems to want us to focus on is the mentality of an unrelentingly bold young man. The novel zeroes in on how Slaney sees and responds to the world, rather than the cat-and-mouse game of Newfie fugitive versus RCMP. The story is gripping in its own way, but it’s also replete with real life randomness: Slaney chatting up truck drivers, taking tea with old ladies in rooming house hideouts, eating ice cream with New Brunswick girls curious enough to pick up desperate hitchhikers on the run. It’s a meandering, organic tale.

This works well for a story that’s an exploration of unrestrained, naïve, youthful hope. Caught is about how David Slaney yearns for freedom, for movement, for adventure. It’s about his fear of ordinary, staid existence, and about the deep sadness that thrusts him into a criminal world with no happy endings. This tenor comes out in a passage toward the book’s end when Slaney has finally met his Colombians suppliers:

Slaney was offered a violin and he played it like a fiddle, jigs and reels, and then something slow and full of need that he made up as he went along…

All the need he’d felt in prison came out of the wooden instrument under his chin. All the longing, terse and barbed and broken, hung over the bonfire. The flames near the crackled black logs were blue and flicking. It seemed like the fire breathed up and sank down with the music. The ocean roared and shushed. Someone had bongo drums; someone had a tin whistle. There were a few stringed instruments made of gourds. A silver flute. Everybody playing together, improvising. Looking up into each other’s eyes so they could all know where they were going with it. Slaney leading the way, sawing gently, tapping his foot, urging them on by nodding yes and yes.

If Slaney had a reason for going on this trip in the first place, maybe it was this: so he could be on a Colombian beach playing all his sadness out under the stars, stoned out of his mind. He was there for the sense of abandon he felt. (226-227)

This passage typifies the novel’s atmosphere. It’s 314 pages of sadness and dreams and getting high and wilding out all night on a beach as the repercussions of bad choices close in from every side.

Caught is a remarkable book about a remarkable man, achingly rendered by one of our most insightful novelists. It’s a fun read that’ll make you think hard about being alive till you feel something in your bones, and it’s one you’ll remember well past the last page. With this latest effort Moore proves that, no matter the genre, she’s a writer who knows how to catch our attention.

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Review: We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

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NoViolet Bulawayo. We Need New Names. Little, Brown, 2013. $25.00 US. ISBN 9780316230810. (Thanks to Little, Brown for a review copy of this book.)

NoViolet Bulawayo. We Need New Names. Little, Brown, 2013. $25.00 US. ISBN 9780316230810. Thanks to Little, Brown for a review copy of this book.

NoViolet Bulawayo’s debut novel follows the life of ten-year-old Darling, a Zimbabwean girl coming up as the country is going down. This precocious child, who used to live in what she might term a house-house with parents holding job-jobs, now lives in a tin-wrapped camp called Paradise. Her parents have left for the borders to find work, and so Darling roams free with her gang of young friends: Bastard, Chipo, Godknows, Sbho, and Stina.

Because the schools are closed — the teachers have fled to South Africa seeking employment — Darling and her companions pass the time pilfering guavas from rich neighbourhoods and watching adults make their way in a divided world. Amusing themselves with games like “Find bin Laden” or bouts of play-lovemaking, these children betray an awareness of issues the adults consider serious, yet which Darling and her friends see as simple curiosities.

The genius of the book is in this juxtaposition: a wide range of social, political, and economic problems come to light in We Need New Names — the AIDS epidemic, patronizing NGO behaviour, political violence, and child sexual abuse, to name a few — yet these phenomena come in for matter-of-fact, humorous treatment by Darling and her gang. The way they discuss plans to abort the pregnancy of a pre-teen friend raped by an older family member is a case in point:

Today we’re getting rid of Chipo’s stomach once and for all. One, it makes it hard for us to play, and two, if we let her have the baby, she will just die. We heard the women talking yesterday about Nosizi, that short, light-skinned girl who took over MaDumane’s husband when MaDumane went to Namibia to be a housemaid. Nosizi is dead now, from giving birth. It kills like that. (80)

Darling’s world is one where playing games and dying in childbirth are both serious business. This youthful viewpoint provides both delightful insight into a child’s imagination and a poignant window on contemporary events in Zimbabwe. Considering the subject’s gravity, it was judicious of Bulawayo to enlist an irreverent ten-year-old as her narrator. This allowed her to craft a story that speaks in equal measure to joy and sorrow, richness and poverty, hope and destruction — themes that resonate with her birth country’s current dispensation.

In this regard, We Need New Names is a book that rails against popular representations of Zimbabwe — even if Bulawayo’s acknowledgement of every last African stereotype risks giving them new life. The book strikes back at the purely negative and show that the land north of the Limpopo River is rich with contradictions and full of beauty, just like, for example, “the USA, which is a country-country” (51). Bulawayo gives Zimbabwe depth, undermining those who invoke it as a tired cliché of darkness that’s older than Conrad. The novel’s closing paragraph, in which Darling chases a friend’s dog in a round of “Find bin Laden” only to witness a bread truck run it over, encapsulates this blend of joy and pain, loss and plenty:

There was red on the road. Two gaping furrows where the tires had plowed into the earth. An unsounded yelp drowned in the hollow of a twisted throat. White fur, red streaks in some places, like somebody clumsy had tried to decorate. Big, bared teeth. Crushed meat. Long pink tongue licking the earth. A lone paw raised in a perfect high-five. Bone jutting from the side of the stomach. One eye popped out (I could not see the other). And the delicious, delicious smell of Lobels bread. (292)

But the novel’s duality is not limited to Darling’s life in Zimbabwe. Halfway through the book she is abruptly taken to live in “Destroyedmichygan” with her Aunt Fostalina. Here the narrative takes a new course, centering on the challenges of life as an undocumented African teen in the United States. In this section, too, the book invokes stark contrasts. America is characterized by cold weather, abundance, and isolation: the opposite of Darling’s life in Paradise. Children don’t ask their parents for stories; they Google. They don’t invent games together; they play Xbox. They don’t lift guavas from local trees; they watch Redtube in the basement when their relatives are off doing shiftwork.

This latter part of the book is a mixed bag. On the one hand, it’s replete with tragic scenarios that brilliantly lampoon the objectification faced by African migrants on a daily basis (a woman corners Darling in a washroom and asks: “Are you from Africa too?… Can you say something in your language?… Isn’t that beautiful?… Africa is beautiful… But isn’t it terrible what’s happening in the Congo? Just awful….” (177-178)).

On the other hand, however, the back half of the novel ranges on more mundane territory. A child’s perspective on contemporary life in Zimbabwe is new, and in Bulawayo’s hands the material dazzles. The immigrant experience in America, however, is less innovative as subject matter. That’s not to say it should be neglected, or that the American side of We Need New Names isn’t worth reading. Bulawayo’s voice is fresh; fiction-lovers should take note, regardless of their stake in African affairs. But the dramatic shift in Darling’s circumstances at the novel’s midpoint creates an unsettling rift in the narrative.

In a way, this works because it emulates the abrupt shifts migration entails. Yet it also leaves one longing for cohesion. As it stands, the book isn’t about Darling’s immigrant experiences per se, nor is it about her childhood under ZANU-PF rule. It’s an even split. Granted, it’s one that reflects real life. But life often lacks the unity a cogent novel demands.

Yet regardless of the story’s bifurcation, We Need New Names is a bracing read. Darling is a feisty, funny, freethinking protagonist with sharp insights on Zimbabwe and America, childhood and growing up. The book is equal parts mirth and mishap, and it confirms the 2011 Caine Prize winner as a vigorous new force in literature.

99 Styles Later

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Wildflowers in Olympic National Park

My reprise of Raymond Queneau’s Exercises In Style is over. Woohoo, ninety-nine styles done! (And ninety-nine photos, which were as challenging as the styles.) Having reached the end of what turned out to be a long project, it feels mighty fine.

But beyond personal satisfaction, what’s the significance of revisiting this old and unusual work? A few things come to mind. One is that a book like The Exercises In Style poses a question about the nature of literature, not only from a stylistic point of view but also in terms of story. Because a book that recounts the same mundane anecdote on every page 99 times simply has to be boring. And yet it’s not. It defies expectations,  so it amuses and occasionally amazes.

As a result, it’s a book that demonstrates the power of ingenuity, as well as the influence forms have on readers’ experience of plot — from forms that encompass the whole story, like genre, to those that lie within phrases, like metaphors. These elements not only change the reading experience but fundamentally alter the story; the plot elements remain fixed, yet in spite of this the story flows and melts and reforms as something new.

One can ask, then, what’s a story? Because if Queneau has proven anything it’s that while strictly speaking we’re dealing with the same characters and events, in reality we’re not. The story mutates when you write it from a different angle. The original ingredients aren’t well-preserved, they dissolve into the whole. Literature, he proves ninety-nine times, is as much about structure and texture as about plot and character.

Moreover, the former shapes the latter. In other words, The Exercises In Style demonstrates that what people draw from a piece of writing is perhaps more contingent on authorial voice than many realize. And not only does this mean we should pay attention to the sorts of devices and perspectives we employ on the page — a commonplace — but we should actively cultivate a variety of them. Ninety-nine might be a good number to aim for.

Of course, this has its limits. At a certain point in this ‘grand game of styles’ a longing for change, character development, or just anything new to happen creeps up and seizes you by the throat (“Please God, not the same anecdote again!”). I can’t say I’m sad to move to other projects after rehashing the same material what felt like endless times.

On the other hand, it was always fun. The constraint of repeating certain story elements pushed me to breathe new stylistic life into them, for under such limitations that was all I could do. The result was a series of ventures into new genres, voices, and rhythms that I now see have tremendous power to shape how stories come across.

Mind you, such observations could well be made through reading too. But when you try out ninety-nine ways of approaching the same writing assignment, it really sinks into your bones. Not only does such an exercise illustrate that our angle of attack matters, but it underscores our vast creative potential: if you set your mind to it, the literary fount you can tap into is limitless. We are all creativity machines with infinite production lines.

So what does all this boil down to? Creative constraints are good. Exercises that push your literary limits are good. Experimentation is good. And writing? That’s beyond good. That’s magic.

But it’s a magic that bears repeating — that demands it, lest the pencils rebel from their drawers and poke us in the eye. And ninety-nine times is just a beginning.