Friday, 18 April 2014

How About This?

Despite calling the language in Anne Carson's Red Doc> occasionally "stunning," Erin Lyndal Martin feels the book is deeply flawed—an attempted epic whose good moments are "overshadowed by pretension of form and over-reaching of the whole project."
But are these decisions about characters' names, these variations in form, really anything more than self-indulgent stabs at literary immortality? Carson goes to great pains to push the limits of form but fails to give her characters much in the way of individual personalities. Unlike other poets who experiment with form, Carson's experiments fail to pay off or actualise the desire to write a contemporary epic.  
Carson ends on an open note; one that suggests G and Sad could appear again, maybe again under different names and different forms. Despite what often feels like the characters' lack of depth, it would be nice to check in on them again in a few years. Hopefully, by then, Carson will focus on what she does best and leave the pretentious form and confused narrative structure behind. 

Monday, 14 April 2014

Guillaume Morissette's New Tab: A Conversation Between Two Editors

by Dimitri Nasrallah, Esplanade Books Editor

New Tab, the debut novel by Montreal writer Guillaume Morissette, comes out today.  It’s the twentieth Esplanade Books title, and it introduces yet another fresh voice to a fiction line that has had a successful run developing them under founding editor Andrew Steinmetz.  The life of a video-game designer is not something you see too often in fiction, but it rings true for anyone living in Montreal these days, where companies like Ubisoft employ thousands of young people.  It’s a relatively recent phenomenon, a lifestyle entirely lost on previous generations of writers, to whom the option was largely unavailable.

As such, Morissette’s New Tab brings to life a very contemporary Montreal, one that hasn’t really settled into place just yet.  And that’s what makes it so exciting.  Here we see the city as the fluently bilingual, game-sector subsidized home to a generation of post-university youth who spends their twenties frequenting all sorts of illegal venues, going to house parties, swapping cheap apartments, and cultivating deeply complex social networking personas that are increasingly divorced from who they are in real life – whatever that may constitute these days.   Morissette has a talent for capturing this ephemeral phase of being young, both in its cultural trends and its underlying psyche of social anxiety.

New Tab ended up being Andrew Steinmetz’s final book as Esplanade’s fiction editor, as well as the first Esplanade title to see publication during my brief tenure.  As such, I decided to call up Andrew to discuss my impressions with him, seeing as how I ended up becoming one of New Tab's first readers.

DN: When did you first come across the manuscript?

AS: I don’t remember the time or date.  But [Guillaume] submitted and I opened the file, and right away I was struck by certain things.  The title, first of all, which I didn’t catch right away what it meant: New Tab.  The first sentence of the book had this effortless feel.  I thought it was striking and spoke of the now, sounded very contemporary.  It was a very cool first sentence.  Then as I read the first few pages, I understood this whole idea of how the tab, opening a new tab or a browser tab, was a great organizing principle for a book like that, where the main character is immersed in technology and communicating primarily through Facebook and his computer.  I thought it was fabulous.

DN: Seems like he’s working on quite the high-wire balancing act in the book, between the pop culture of the technology and the ultimate gravitas that comes through it.  How do you find he struck that balance?  Was it there the whole time, or was it something you two had to edit toward?

AS:  You mean the balance between the ideas and the book’s culture?

DN: Yes, between the surface of the story and its depth.  Because the surface is definitely a prominent feature, but to me the depth is what really impresses.

AS: The balance was struck from the beginning.  We had a bit of a tug of war over the character, whether he was too self-indulgent or too self-absorbed.  But of course he is, or he’s supposed to be.  The character I liked from the beginning, because he came across as being this androgynous, sexually ambivalent male, which I thought was interesting.  And of course he’s full of angst and self-criticism.  Guillaume built this persona up quite well.  At some points I thought maybe it was too much, and that’s where we ended up having our discussions about the manuscript.  But as a writer, what impressed me about Guillaume was that we always had the conversation going back and forth, and he always gave very rational reasons for keeping what he wanted to keep.  I always believe that, in the end, if the writer listens to you but says no, you have to go with them.

DN: One of the things that intrigues me most about the book is that, not only does Guillaume try to capture the inner soundtrack of someone in their mid-20s, but that he actually nails it so often, and that he does so with such brevity and simplicity.  He’s known these feelings, and he manages to get right to them in a way that’s not labored, but also quite funny.

AS: Very funny, yeah.  That’s what I was getting at, even in that first sentence.  That first sentence tells you so much about the rest of the book, how it’s going to be.  The way Guillaume meshes the character with the technology, the way he thinks effortlessly and succinctly.  Another sentence of his that I really loved goes something like, “I hate using my phone as a phone.”  I thought that was very funny, especially to someone of my generation.  Again and again, I think he nails, as you say, his own generation and how they interact, how they communicate pretty casually, openly, and informally about so many things.

DN: It’s interesting that you bring up the notion of generations.  It doesn’t address your generation, and I found while reading it that I felt a bit old to be living that way too.  But, at the same time, he’s captured something so immediate to his particular age group.

AS: We talked about that point specifically, and I said the reason I liked his book is that it reads like a fossil record of a time.  It’s a great representation of how people communicate ideas.  Coming back to this whole notion of new tabs as this organizing principle, I found it to be a perfect title and principle for the structure, but also for the cognitive mindset of people who relate that way.  New tab: it speaks to this brand of randomness where, as things come up, they can go to a certain depth and then close down as something else opens up.  It’s the multi-tasking of life’s issues.

DN: To me, that was really the universal quality of the book.  Even if you weren’t of that generation or weren’t living in Montreal, you could still walk away understanding something not only of the character, but also of a particular age group that we kind of look at from the outside now. We observe them with a sort of dispassionate marvel.  How different they seem to be in how they go about talking to one another.

AS:  He’s the first author where, for editing, we Skyped. That’s the first time I’ve done that.  We sat there staring at each other.  It was a funny experience, but I thought it was perfect for editing this book.  In the past I’ve done it on the phone or by email.  It worked well that way, but I felt like an old man sitting there, saying, ‘Okay, here’s my Skype handle’.  He was totally comfortable, and I must’ve looked very awkward (laughs).

DN: And apart from this universal quality of generational socialization that the novel handles so well, I found that if you’ve lived in Montreal, it’s got something very particular to say about the city that contrasts its universality.

AS:  Yeah, it’s something about the apartments, which was one of the main themes for me.  It was, how to put it, a reference for me, living in those Montreal apartments and apartments coming up and looking for apartments, which is all very reminiscent of that age and university. But to me it felt unique to Montreal, how people move and move through different apartments.

DN: That part I felt I could readily compare with.  I had lived through that.  It seems like a rite of passage in this city to go through those apartments and to go to those fully bilingual parties.  So by the time you were done editing, the finished novel was pretty close to how it came in?

AS: I think it’s pretty close.  I asked Guillaume to add some scenes.  I really liked the scenes of the character’s workplace, making the video games.  I thought that was a lot of fun and interesting to read.  We thought about adding more of the writing class that the character takes. But in the end, it remains almost a side-issue of the whole book.  Guillaume was against that, and I kinda liked that he didn’t want to turn it in to any level of parody.

DN: I suppose, at that point, it almost begins hitting too close to home for him, given that he was doing both the videogame work and the writing classes. 

AS: Yeah.

Guillaume Morissette will be launching the novel on Thursday, April 24th, at Librairie Drawn & Quarterly.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Sunday Poem

Its freedom already won by age, propeller,
or some unseen thing—a cool, white tumour,
small as a grain of rice wedged into meat
or organ. A bloated feathering of scales—
sun-side, bone-dry, and silvering—the carp
looks ready for first and last flight. Tucked
away from bigger water, this fish is an island
of decay bull’s-eyed into a huddle of dike stones.
Bobbing in the wake of yachts cutting across
the bay, it gives the illusion of life. A codex
of pipe taps, footprints after an avalanche,
the false hope wreckage gives. As if something
could still be alive in there. As if, returned to us,
it would still be the same. We task ourselves
with releasing it, but the switch has too much
give, too green for what the job takes. Will not
lift this mass and its clouded eye skyward.
What works: time and a second branch run up
from shore. One stab through the rot, the thing
speared and hauled into open water. That if
we stand together, squint, tilt our heads just right,
we can see how good we are, how we always knew
what was best, what, in the end, could be saved.
From YAW (Mansfield Press, 2014) by Dani Couture

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Little Chocolate Prizes

In a long essay (skip to page 45), David O'Meara looks at poems by George Mackay Brown, Tim Lilburn and Fanny Howe and ponders the way poets understand and use information, which he defines as "the concrete details and news we share in a poem":
Poetry resists paraphrase, it’s been said. But with the best intentions, we are often taught to read it this way, like a treasure hunt with a little chocolate prize at the end. “Oh, Jane, that’s correct. The poem means you should always be nice to animals.” “Oh, Jimmy, you’re right. The poem means death is inescapable and all our experience will one day be reduced to mere data. Here is a gold star for your booklet.” This kind of reading is something like those tourists who hop off the bus in Agra, take a few photos before hopping back on, just so they can say they were at the Taj Mahal. Likewise, if we are only reading a poem to get the point, we miss all the landscape, history, architecture and food stands along the road. We do come to a poem for meaning, but that meaning is bonded to the act of reading it, made cumulative through our interaction with the texture of the poem, its diction, images and associations.
O'Meara elaborates:
The best poems tell us something in an interesting way, but confound our expectation of it. It’s a delicate balancing act of uncertainties and recognitions and the more effectively the reader is dangled in the interstice, the deeper the transmission. The three poems I’ve discussed are all successful in their own way. But if a poem is too easily graspable, if we “get it” in one go, like “Taxman,” it exhausts itself of any requirement to re-read. It’s consumed, but there’s little digestion. And if a poem is too elliptical, like “Inescapable,” it edges into the nebula of incomprehension and might exhaust the reader’s patience and be abandoned. For a poem’s effect to be profound, it must also initiate a breach in our cognitive confidence and then restore it partly. Which is a fancy way of saying it needs to surprise us. 

Perfect Phrases

Michael Lista reviews Ricardo Sternberg's latest collection and pronounces him "one of the absolute best poets in this country."
Some Dance doesn’t so much mark a departure from Sternberg’s previous work as continue to plot a trend, an evolution from the folkloric and fantastic to the secular and contemporary. Written in the voice of an “inveterate optimist,” Some Dance finds Sternberg taking account of his world, his life, and bestowing to it the dignity of his style, transforming it like the inveterate optimists of the insect world, “The Bees,” with “the trick (or is it wisdom?) / that allows them to distil / from the thorn of grievance, / the sweetest honey.” He takes us through his encounters with charlatans and stoned surgeons, lost loves, failed marriages, dead friends and relatives, the dictionary, a fridge full of expired food and more, and attends to each with the same verbal precision, panache and pathos, so that the unerring consideration of his aesthetic becomes a kind of ethical invigilation, the redemption of imperfect lives by perfect phrases.

Gala Signal Editions Launch in Montreal, April 4, 2014

Carmine Starnino
Jim Johnstone
Ed Carson
Jason Guriel
Catherine Chandler
Richard Greene

Tweet Of The Day

Praise for Jason Guriel's The Pigheaded Soul: Essays on Poetry and Culture.