Category Archives: Fiction — general

Universal Harvester, by John Darnielle



Two things I hate: when I look forward to a book for a long time and it doesn’t live up to my expectations, and when I enjoy the process of reading a book but the ending changes how I feel about it. Both of these happened, to some extent, with Universal Harvester.

I am a huge John Darnielle/Mountain Goats fan. I have the T-shirt that says “I only listen to The Mountain Goats.” I think Darnielle is one of the most brilliant lyricists writing today. He’s a poet. He’s a genius. And with his last book, Wolf in White Van, he wrote a complex, difficult, but also very rich novel. So I was really excited to see what he would do with his next foray into fiction.

Universal Harvester sets up a creepy premise worth of bestseller genre thrillers. In a video store (remember those?) in a small Iowa town, two people mention to Jeremy, the young man working behind the counter, a concern about two separate videos. In each case, a short section from the movie has been replaced with something different — another scene, from a blurry and disturbing home video, taped over or spliced into the movie. Once might just be a glitch, but twice? In the same video store? When scenes spliced into one of the movies seem to show someone held prisoner, perhaps being hurt — and when the location of one scene is recognizable as a local farm — Jeremy’s boss, Sarah Jane, goes to investigate, and gets drawn into a weird web of circumstances.

So far it’s intriguing and beautifully creepy. And there are some things Darnielle does so very well, just as you’d expect from a writer of his stature. Setting — that Midwestern small-town late-90s feeling that is evoked so perfectly with tiny details. Characterization — Jeremy, Sarah Jane, Jeremy’s widowed father and his relationship with his son. In a later section of the book which travels back 30 years in time to another small town to reveal the backstory of a different character, Lisa Sample, we see the building and unravelling of a marriage in precise, heartrending detail. Everything is rendered with the care and precision you’d expect from a guy who can evoke a whole life in a three-minute song.

But here’s what you don’t have to do in a three-minute song lyric: plot. And this is where Universal Harvester fell down on the job, for me. Even given that this is not a genre thriller but a literary novel, and literary fiction allows for much more open-ended, less defined endings — even by that standard, I think the book fails to deliver on its promise. All throughout (and it’s quite a short book; I read it in a day) one piece of evidence adds to another to suggest a truly tantalizing puzzle with a breathtaking revelation that will tie it all together. Everything is building up to something big — but then it doesn’t.

Darnielle leads the reader along with the implicit promise that we will eventually understand who is making these tapes and splicing them into rental-store videos (we do learn that much) and why (we definitely do not; the explanation given is completely inadequate to what we’ve been shown this character doing). How and why does Sarah Jane get drawn in as deeply as she does? Why is another character driving down the road with a car trunk full of videotapes, and is a near-fatal accident really an accident? How does Lisa Sample’s childhood tie in here? Who is the “I” voice that sometimes slips through the omniscient third-person narration, who confesses to holding the videocamera? Why are there hints that all the evidence related to these events is now part of an investigation, and who is investigating? When, years later, a family from outside the community buys the old farmhouse and discovers the stash of videotapes, will the missing pieces finally fall into place?

The answers, in case you’re wondering, are: We don’t know; we don’t know; we don’t know; maybe Lisa but we’re not sure; we don’t know; and no, they won’t.

While I’m all for ambiguity and novels that don’t answer all the reader’s questions, I think Darnielle has taken trusting the reader a little too far here. The feeling I’m left with is not so much “I have to finish solving this puzzle myself, because the writer’s not going to do all the work for me,” and more, “The writer set up a puzzle far too clever to solve, and then just didn’t bother.” All the loose ends are left loose, and we never get the big payoff that seems to be coming. This novel was a delight to read because it is so beautifully written, and a lot of the delight — the wonderfully rendered, sparse dialogue that says so much, the insight into human nature and the life of small rural towns — is beautiful no matter where the plot goes. But when the plot goes nowhere at all, part of the pleasure of the journey is marred by the realization that all along, it was a journey nowhere.

Oh well. I’ve still got several dozen hours of Mountain Goats songs to listen to. In a song, nobody cares if you resolve your plot threads.

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The Money Shot, by Glenn Deir

Layout 1The Money Shot is one of several novels coming out in the next few months or so that I have some insider knowledge of: it was one of the strongest entries in an unpublished-novel contest that I had the honour of judging a couple of years back. Glenn Deir’s tale (although I didn’t know it was Glenn Deir’s then, as the contest was blind-judged) of an unscrupulous, back-stabbing local news reporter was a wickedly fun romp from start to finish. When I found out that the author was someone who had considerable experience in that world of local journalism, I knew that even if The Money Shot is not a roman a clef about the local CBC station (and you kind of hope it’s not, because you’d hate to think your evening news is being brought to you by anyone as awful as Deir’s antihero, Sebastian Hunter), still, there’s got to be some kernels of truth there.

The Money Shot is a scathing, funny, wicked look at the world of local TV news: more cut-throat than you might think. It’s a page-turner and a thoroughly enjoyable read from start to finish.

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Weaving Water, by Annamarie Beckel

weavingwaterThis is a quiet and lovely new book by Annamarie Beckel, whose writing I greatly admire. She was the editor who guided my novel By the Rivers of Brooklyn through its journey from an unwieldy 180,000 word manuscript to the published book it eventually became, but she’s far more than a midwife to other writers’ work — she is a talented author in her own right. Weaving Water is a story about midlife, despair, hope, and also otters.

The novel is told from the point of view of Beth, a middle-aged biologist spending some time alone in a lake cabin in central Newfoundland, studying the otters who live there. While there she meets a mysterious old … woman? Or is it an old man? she’s not quite sure at first, but the elderly neighbour, Mattie, becomes and important part of Beth’s world, as does Mattie’s dog Muin and nephew Dan. Beth’s own family includes a husband back in St. John’s and a grown daughter who lives farther away in Canada, and she’s feeling the pull of distance on those relationships. Mostly, though, she feels discouragement and futility — both about her own career and research, and about the larger project of saving the planet. How do we find hope when we question the value of our own efforts? And can we learn any life lessons from otters? These are just two questions that this gentle and thoughtful novel addresses.

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Vinegar Girl, by Anne Tyler

vinegar girlVinegar Girl is Anne Tyler’s contribution to the Hogarth Shakespeare series, in which several award-winning novelists have taken on the task of re-creating Shakespeare’s stories and characters in the form of contemporary novels. Tyler has admitted she’s an odd choice for this, as she is not a dedicated Shakespearean: she loves the language but thinks most of his plots are ridiculous — which, when you break them down, they often are. Why, then, a project that strips away Shakespeare’s language and asks writers to retell the often-weak plots? I’d suggest it works, when it does work (Vinegar Girl is the only one of the Hogarth Shakespeares I’ve read so far, though I’ve heard good things about others) because of character. Shakespeare created unforgettable characters, even when his (usually borrowed) plots force them into doing silly things. And one of those memorable is Katherina, or Kate, the heroine of The Taming of the Shrew, who in this novel becomes Tyler’s vinegar girl.

If you struggle with Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew is one of the most frustrating of the plays. Kate is a spunky, spirited heroine, a woman determined not to fit into the narrow mold of acceptable female behavior. The play contains scenes between Katherine and her suitor, then husband, Petruchio, that (long before Elizabeth Bennett met Mr. Darcy) laid the groundwork for every romantic comedy you’ve ever seen: two high-spirited, sharp-tongued people engage in verbal one-up-man-ship while not even realizing they’re falling in love. (Admittedly, Shakespeare himself did this even better with Beatrice and Benedict in Much Ado About Nothing, but they aren’t supposed to be the main characters of the play).

However, there’s far darker stuff going on in Taming: the arrogant Petruchio has married the titular shrew Katherina basically to win a bet, and he “tames” her using methods that are, frankly, abusive. At the end of the play Kate emerges tamed, lecturing her sister (and, my extension, women in the audience) about the importance of respecting your man. It’s inevitable that a modern novelist would want to re-examine those plot lines a little.

Some things about Vinegar Girl work very well. Tyler’s Kate Battista is an engaging character — not particularly shrewish, perhaps, but outspoken and forthright with no particular interest in charming anyone. Arranged marriages are few and far between in twenty-first century America, but Kate’s scientist father begs her to enter into one for one of the very few reasons people still do: to prevent his valuable research assistant from being deported. Kate’s reasons for agreeing to the green card marriage are tangled and not always completely believable, but a nice little love story does emerge from the tangle.

The place where I felt the story fell down a little was with the character of Pyotr, the research assistant Kate marries. He’s no Petruchio — in fact it’s hard to tell what he is. I think one shortcoming here is that in order to make the “immigration marriage” story work, Tyler had to make Pyotr a non-native English speaker, which means that his interactions with Kate are hardly characterized by sparkling repartee. And since witty wordplay is the only thing that makes a Katherine-Petruchio type relationship at all worth rooting for, its loss here handicaps the romance. Pyotr is ultimately a likeable character, though he takes awhile to grow on both Kate and the reader, but I didn’t have the feeling that he was really a worthy sparring partner for a modern-day shrew.

In the end I enjoyed the novel for what it was — a very gifted novelist’s attempt to reimagine an old story in a modern setting — but I wasn’t entirely sure it had succeeded. If anyone could make this work, it probably would have been Anne Tyler — which means it likely couldn’t work, not completely. But it was still interesting and engaging to watch her make the attempt.

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The Illegal, by Lawrence Hill

theillegalSo, you may or may not remember that I was in the process of reading, a bit belatedly, all the book selections for this year’s Canada Reads competition. I didn’t plan to leave the winner for last; it just worked out that way because of my library hold requests, but it was kind of nice to build up to the book that won.

The Illegal is Lawrence Hill’s exploration of racism, immigration, and our attitudes towards the Other, examined through the lens of two imaginary countries, Zantoroland and Freedom State. The main character, Keita Ali, is a runner from Zantoroland, an impoverished country whose unstable political system is a little remenescient of Rwanda right before the genocide. Life is hard and unsafe in Zantoroland. Education offers Keita’s sister an escape, as running does for Keita, but for both of them getting away is not as easy, or as permanent, as it seems.

Keita becomes an illegal immigrant in the wealthy, white-ruled Freedom State, where his running continues to earn him prizes but he is in constant danger. Here, his life intersects with the lives of several other characters, black and white, who show us different faces of the racial divide in Freedom State.

Hill’s decision to create two fictional countries as the backdrop for his story, instead of using a real-world setting, is risky, and has its advantages and disadvantages. It allows him to set up conflicts with more freedom than he could do within the restrictions of real countries, but might also allow some readers to feel detached from the story, although it’s clear that Zantoroland is every impoverished, volatile country people want to escape, and Freedom State is every wealthy country that wants to control the flood of asylum-seekers.

This is a timely story for 2016, and I found it interesting and read quickly. I did find, though, that it lacked the haunting power of Hill’s best-known book, The Book of Negroes, in which a single narrator emerges as an unforgettable character. The multitude of characters and voices in The Illegal may dilute the power of the narrative a little, but it does give the author many paths into exploring a complex issue.

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Mister Nightingale, by Paul Bowdring

nightingaleThe latest book by Newfoundland novelist Paul Bowdring was one I did not want to miss. Mister Nightingale is the story of a middle-aged Newfoundland writer, James Nightingale, returning to his home province after living in Toronto for many years. His marriage has ended, his books are modestly successful, and while he takes some time out to reconnect with old friends, his university-aged daughter, and his aging father, Nightingale reflects on where life has taken him and what he’s actually accomplished.

There’s a lot of reflection here — this is not the book for anyone who wants a fast-paced, plot-driven story. If I’m comparing it to other books I’ve read in the past few weeks, the comparison that resonates most is between James Nightingale and Sripathi Rao from The Hero’s Walk. Both are men in later middle life whose lives have, in many ways, disappointed them, men who feel they have not fulfilled their own early dreams or others’ expectations of them. However, as Nightingale is a writer, there is the added layer of artistic angst, which means that he not only struggles with the meaning of his artistic vocation, what it has achieved and whether it was even worth pursuing — but also that he does so in stunningly beautiful language.

This is a novelist’s novel, a book for people who love words. It’s also a fun read for anyone who knows and loves St. John’s, Newfoundland and its literary scene, which is the main reason it floated to the top of my overcrowded “to-read” list. Apart from the general caricatures of the local scene and the loving evoked details of the city, there are a few characters that are pretty clearly (and in some cases, hilariously) based on thinly-disguised real people. Another strand of the novel that will strike a chord with many readers is Nightingale’s relationship with his elderly father, Malc. Malc, who lives in a long-term care facility, occupies that marginal space around the edges of actual dementia that is so familiar to those of us who have dealt with aging loved ones. Sometimes his conversation is completely sensible, only to be replaced seconds later by non-sequiturs that show how far he’s strayed from the present-day reality.

I’ll admit there were aspects of this novel’s plot that I didn’t find entirely believable or satisfying (particularly one major incident near the end of the book), but in the end, this is not a novel to be read for the plot. This is one man’s reflection (Nightingale’s and, perhaps, Bowdring’s, though I always try to be careful in speculating about how autobiographical a writer’s work is) on what it means to be a writer, what it means to be more than halfway through your life, and what it means to go back to the place you came from. A reflective and well-written book, and often quite a funny one as well.

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Bone and Bread, by Saleema Nawaz

boneandbreadThird in the three “Canada Reads” selections I covered this month was Saleema Nawaz’s Bone and Bread, the story of two sisters united and divided by family and personal tragedy. The narrator of the story is Beena, a woman in her early 30s who has just learned of the death of her sister Sadhana. The story alternates between the present tense, in which Beena, her 18-year-old son Quinn, and her boyfriend Evan try to deal with the aftermath of Sadhana’s death, and the past in which the story of the girls’ childhood and troubled adolescence unfolds.

Beena has a strong, readable first-person narrative voice that carried me quickly through this story. Her relationship with her sister has all the complexity of a real sibling relationship — it’s definitely love/hate — with the added twist of hardship added by the girls being orphaned quite young. In addition to (or most likely in response to) their losses, the girls both have a difficult time as teenagers — Beena becomes pregnant at 16 while Sadhana develop anorexia. The story is set in 1980s, 90s and 2000s Montreal, with the characters’ love for the city an ever-present background to their story (even though Beena has chosen to live in Ottawa as an adult). Bone and Bread was a story that carried me forward quickly through its pages, not so much because of any shocking plot twists or breathtaking suspense (almost everything I’ve told you in this plot summary is clear from the first couple of pages of the book, so I’m not spoiling it) — rather, it’s a strong narrative voice and a realistic portrayal of tangled family relationships and complicated grief that keeps the pages turning. I found the resolution of the story just a little anticlimactic, but not enough to mar my enjoyment of the whole. 

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