24
Tuesday
Mar
2015

Love Enough

 

In her most recent novel Love Enough, Dionne Brand provides readers with glimpses into the daily lives of an eclectic cast of characters whose lives intersect in unexpected ways. Set in Toronto, the novel explores from multiple perspectives what it means to love—and to love enough.

 

There is June, a middle-aged social activist discontented with her relationship with her lover. She gives temporary haven to Bedri, a young man going deeper and deeper into a life of crime with his best friend Ghost. Bedri’s choices disappoint the wishes of his immigrant father, Da’uud, a polyglot and talented economist who drives a taxi in Canada. Ghost’s sister Lia gives up the opportunity for companionship and adventure with Jasmeet, feeling tied to her irresponsible and chaotic mother Mercede.

 

As each of these characters navigates their lives in the largest city in Canada, they work through what it means to love those around them—lovers, mothers, sons, and strangers.

 

Brand writes with such easy familiarity about a city that she knows and loves deeply that readers feel instantly at home in the setting. Love Enough invites us to walk Toronto’s streets alongside the characters, to inhabit ordinary corners of a vibrant city and explore its secret haunts. The novel’s opening lines beckon with both invitation and instruction:

 

The best way of looking at a summer sunset in this city is in the rear-view mirror. Or better, the side mirrors of a car. So startling. All the subtlety, the outerworldliness of the sunset follows you…. If you ever travel east along Dupont Street, at that time, look back.

 

Brand’s lyrical language paints pictures like that throughout the book. Lake Ontario “oscillates like green-blue wet glass,” while “Toronto sits disconsolate, humid in its thick pink fibreglass insulation.” This language, rarely clichéd or expected, is one of the book’s high points—unsurprising, given that the author has won the Governor General’s Award for her poetry.

 

The story-lines, on the other hand, sometimes fall flat. The novel’s worst moments read like character sketches written in preparation for something else; Brand often tells us about June’s life instead of letting us watch her live it. She states conclusions rather than painting scenarios from which we could draw our own conclusions, and so June’s life often feels detached, aloof.

 

Bedri’s narrative acts as a counterpoint to June’s, drawing readers in with its immediacy and intensity. Having committed an awful crime, and knowing each miserable way he has failed his family, Bedri is both desperate for love and desperate to love. After a desolate encounter with his sister, he realizes that his family is afraid of him, and he decides that the best way to love them is to disappear from their lives. Yet he still longs for love. At a bus stop, “something made him hold his hand out for the people standing there to see.” The people rebuff him, not understanding, and Bedri “stood for a while, his hand still outstretched, then he turned and began running down the street with his hand extended.”

 

Like Bedri, Love Enough’s other characters are often more concerned with receiving love than giving it. Lia focuses on her mother’s failures. June is preoccupied with the ways in which her lover, Sydney, disappoints her, and this preoccupation “bounces and bounces like a pendulum” in her head. 

 

As the novel progresses, however, they learn to give love in small and imperfect ways, coming to understand that “there is nothing universal or timeless about this love business… It is hard if you really want to do it right.” Ghost fathers a child, and when he’s at home, “the baby crawls onto him and plays with the scar on his chest and he feels as if the baby’s hand is sinking past the scar and into his heart.” Sydney tells June that June collects sadness, and this single sentence of understanding, of knowing, fills June up.  

 

The novel opens with that shimmering sunset on Dupont Street, a street that Brand describes as grim and ugly, filled with car-wrecking shops and taxi sheds, desolate diners and hardware stores. Ethereal beauty juxtaposed with the grim, concrete realities of the city. “A sunset is in the perfect location here,” Brand says. “Needed.” As though the simple, subtle beauty of a single sunset is love enough.  

 

In many ways, this opening scene stands as a metaphor for every other moment in the book. As Brand takes us through the small and large catastrophes of each individual life, we see the characters’ baggage and their flaws, out on display like wares of a pawnshop or greasy car parts in a mechanic shop. Yet we also see moments of love, beautiful not because they are perfect, but because they are needed.  

 

Dionne Brand’s novel is a flawed but beautiful homage to our broken, seeking humanity. It’s not perfect love. But it’s love enough.

24
Tuesday
Mar
2015

The Paying Guests

 

 

At just 26, Francis Wray, the protagonist of Sarah Waters’ latest novel, has already let life slip through her fingers.  Burdened by her late father’s debts, her life seems as drab as the postwar London suburb in which she lives with her widowed mother.  In a house absent  of servants, it is left to Francis to fill the role of housemaid and cook but even these  efforts   are not enough to maintain their once-grand house. In a moment of considered desperation, the  Wray women  place an advertisement for lodgers .  

   

As  the novel opens we see how their reduced circumstance bring them  into strange intimacy with the Barbers – the titular “paying guests”  –   who rent  the advertised rooms and transform them  to  their image:  

 

It was as if a giant mouth had sucked a bag of boiled sweets and then given the house a lick. The faded carpet in her mother’s old bedroom was lost beneath pseudo-Persian rugs. The lovely pier-glass had been draped slant-wise with a fringed Indian shawl … the wicker birdcage twirled slowly on a ribbon from a hook that had been screwed into the ceiling; inside it was a silk-and-feather parrot on papier-m â ch é   perch .

 

The young couple and their invited intrusion  quickly  upend  Francis’  orderly life,  “She  simply hadn’t prepared herself for the oddness of the sound and the sight of the couple going about from room to room as if the rooms belong to them. When Mr. Barber, for example, headed back upstairs after a visit to the yard, she heard him pause in the hall. Wondering what could be delaying him, she ventured a look along the passage and saw him gazing at the pictures on the walls like a man in a gallery. Leaning in for a better look at a steel engraving of Ripon Cathedral he put his fingers to his pocket and brought out a matchstick, with which he began idly picking his teeth.”

     

Yet Francis is not simply an  observer, she finds herself the observed as well:  “He   [Mr. Barber]  seemed to enjoy watching her work. His blue gaze travelled over her and she felt him taking her all in: her apron, her steam-frizzed hair, her rolled-up sleeves, her scarlet knuckles.”   The first to poke fun at her own poverty, his unsaid observations nevertheless rankle Francis  while  interactions with Mrs. Barber are similarly fraught,  but  for altogether different reasons.  For a time, however, a balance is struck however uneasy ,  and while longtime fans of Waters will not be shocked by the turn of events, those new to her work may be surprised by how the plot unfolds.   

   

A Man Booker Finalist for  Fingersmith  (2002),  The Night Watch  (2006) and  The Little Stranger  (2009)  the first of  which centered on the Victorian era and the  latter two on the  1940s,  Waters  has  turned to the 1920s for inspiration for her sixth novel.  Far removed from the jazz and gin that characterizes  so many novels set in during the “roaring twenties,”   The Paying Guests  instead focuses on those s hifting social and economic relationships that shook families like the  Wrays  and elevated persons like the Barbers.   Issues of class, gender, love and desire, and courage and cowardice underpin the novel and it is largely the setting that allows for such themes to develop.  

   

For a s much as anything, this is a story about a house.  Once, we are told, it was a “fine old house,”  fringed by  spacious gardens,  set on a leafy street  on Champion Hill , surrounded by other  stately homes.    Indeed, despite its location, set firmly in the  suburbs of London , the  house brings to mind those  grand  country homes that seem to populate so much of  the British literary landscape –  from  Thornfield   and Wuthering Heights to  Atonement ’s  Tallis  House  and  The Little Stranger ’s Hundreds Hall,  as featured in  Waters’ 2009 offering.  

 

These houses, with their twisting corridors and  darkened corne rs, create the ideal set ting for whispered secrets and longing glances, making them the ideal setting to explore forbidden attraction.  Yet the house is also a testament to a bygone era, serving as a sort of crumbling mausoleum for a way of life that has been  lost in the trenches along with a generation of young men.  Indeed, the house is so central to creating tension in the plot that when the characters move outside ,  the novel at times seems to sag. This is in large part because of  the character of Francis; privy only to her thoughts and motivations, which provides a sense of intrigue for the reader, her self-imposed exile and subservience to the house means that her movements outside of it read as somewhat false. For  while she may feel t rapped by the house, this  sense  of   captivity gives her power and energy as a character.   

   

The novel is divided into three sectio ns and while Part One is eminently readable, ending  delicately and perfectly about  200 pages in, the rest of the novel lacks the tautness that propels the first section.  It is not that the plot meanders, but rather the direction it takes seems a bit predictable. There are some overly convenient twists and turns toward the end of the novel and the final pages, unfortunately, read as rather anticlimactic if true to the characters.  Yet ,  Waters’ characteristic eye for detail makes the novel worth reading. She does not overwhelm her characters with stuffy period dialogue nor does she transport modern characters into the past. Rather she creates believable characters trapped by the expectations  of the time in which they live.  

8
Sunday
Mar
2015

Douglas Coupland's Kitten Clone

 

There is a cartoon on the web showing a stick figure sitting at a computer, thinking to himself:

 

An x64 processor is screaming along at billions of cycles per second to run the XNU kernel, which is frantically working through all the POSIX-specified abstraction to create the Darwin system underlying OS X, which in turn is straining itself to run Firefox and its Gecko renderer, which creates a Flash object which renders dozens of video frames every second.

 

Because I wanted to see a cat jump into a box and fall over.

 

I am a god.[1]

 

Divine status conferred by the viewing of cat videos; it is an image very much in line with Douglas Coupland’s project in Kitten Clone. On a journey through the multinational IT company Alcatel-Lucent, Coupland explores the phenomenon of the Internet at a point where its growing adoption and burgeoning speed are significantly impacting how humans do things and even relate to one another. His hope is that conversations with a technology giant responsible for building many of the physical components comprising the Internet will illuminate these effects and serve as “a stepping stone into a larger meditation…about what data and speed and optical wiring are doing to us as a species.” 

 

Kitten Clone is divide into four parts: a fictional scene in French Alsace in 1871, followed by descriptions of visits to global Alcatel-Lucent offices to explore the past, present, and future of the Internet. The past is examined at Bell Labs (New Jersey, USA), where much of the basic research underlying modern telecommunications was done starting in the mid-twentieth century; the present at facilities in France (Paris, Calais) and Canada (Ottawa); and the future at operations in China (Pudong, Shanghai). The book “has a “surfy” feel to it”: 87 of 176 pages are photos by photographer Olivia Arthur, the format intends to mimic web pages and thus how we see and use information on the Internet. At each stage, Coupland gives his thoughts and reflections on Internet technology, the industry creating it, and its impact.

 

The book has some successes. A range of themes are examined that are relevant to a society where information technology is increasingly pervasive: the simultaneous bewilderment and awe felt by lay people towards technology and those who produce it; the rapid and widespread adoption of high-speed Internet; the underfunding of long-term scientific research, even when focussed on technological (and thus industrial/business) ends; the growing view that fast Internet connectivity is a utility akin to the power grid; and the removal of class distinctions through Internet use and availability. Arising from these themes are a host of good questions. Is “technological determinism” true, the idea that “humans exist only to propagate ever-newer technologies”? What have we learned about ourselves via the Internet that we didn’t already know? And what will all of this bandwidth do to us? Interacting with the people who build the Internet (rather than Internet users, web designers, or cultural critics) also provides an unusual perspective on these questions.

 

Coupland achieves the “surfy” feel that he sought; Kitten Clone really is reminiscent of a web page. Too much so. Each stage of the book visits a new place, scans it, makes some observations, asks some questions, and quickly flits to the next location and collection of images; the forms of the web are mimicked without redeeming their failings, much of the discussion floating on the surface of subjects of great depth. Coupled with that, and all too fitting, the prose is too often and too obviously overdone. Describing the Head of Bell Labs Research, Markus Hoffman, Coupland writes that

[he] looks like a school principal who’d discipline you without resorting to corporal punishment, and his eyes tell me that, at any given moment he’s probably figuring out the natural logarithm of his Visa card number or what his lunch might look like connected by strings into the fifth and/or sixth dimensions.

 

This is trying too hard to be clever without advancing the book’s project at all.

 

Coupland’s questions and pool of interviewees are mismatched as well. Being a telecommunications engineer myself, and knowing many others, this is no surprise. Most of my peers in the technical disciplines would readily admit to having no good answer for the question of what the Internet is doing to us, for the simple reason that they don’t see it as their role to address such topics. Coupland is quite right that technically trained voices have a place in the conversation, but few will have the tools or interest to engage it; in terms of their training, their perspective, and the demands of their work, it is just not on their radar.

 

What technical people tend to do instead is acquiesce to common narratives about technology and our relationship to it, and Coupland does the same. One striking example is his discussion of narrative itself:

The now-fading notion that our lives should be stories is a psychological inevitability imbued in readers by the logic of the book and fiction as a medium: focus; sequencing; emotional through-lines; morals; structure; climax; denouement. One can look back on the print era and witness true poignancy: readers the world over were determined to see their lives as stories, when, in fact, books are a specific invention that creates a specific mindset.

 

That is, the use of narrative to express meaning is an outgrowth of the printed word that is being lost in the Internet Age. To see such a contentious thesis offered without supporting evidence is actually stunning, particularly when one reflects that tribes of the Amazon basin, playwrights of antiquity, and present-day technological determinists are united in being incorrigible storytellers. Asking how our tools of communication, such as broadband Internet, affect the stories we tell and how we tell them is very much to the point; rejecting narrative as such is not. Another example is his discussion of technological determinism. To Coupland’s credit, he poses the question of whether or not we shall be ruled by the Almighty Bit, but he does little to explore that question or what alternatives might exist. Indeed, when we read early on that “[l]ooking at human history and the history of technology, there’s a certain sort of inevitability to its parade,” one suspects that the fix is in.

 

And it is. Coupland offers an answer to his key question in the end. In a closing mini-narrative depicting a future where kittens are cloned and synthesized in mere moments but are eaten as soon as their presence becomes inconvenient, we learn our fate: we shall have unimaginable technological power, and be monsters. The Internet will rewire and reprogram us, causing us to forget much and learn little about ourselves and our world. The meditation ends not with a bang but a fatalistic whimper. We shall be slaves, with hardly a shot fired.



[1] xkcd.com/676/.

 

8
Sunday
Mar
2015

Donna Thomson's The Four Walls Of My Freedom

 

There is something both familiar and recognizably heart-wrenching in the story of a person who is pulled into the position of caring for someone who has become, either suddenly or over a long duration, completely dependent. We see this tale played out regularly by those with aging parents needing help with daily tasks, and perhaps we know or have heard of those caring for victims of accidents or degenerative conditions. Almost always in these stories, there is a sense that something is being, and has been, lost by the caregiver. A loss of freedom, a loss of financial resources, a loss of leisure—in short, the implication that the caregiver is bound without benefit to the one who requires help.

 

Donna Thomson, in her memoir The Four Walls of My Freedom, shifts this narrative, and shifts it intentionally and unapologetically. Throughout her book about her life spent caring for her son, Nicholas, who is affected by cerebral palsy, she states again and again how much her son, and others like him with major disabilities, has to offer the world around him. Her refrain enters our Canadian social consciousness at a timely moment, as we (at the moment of this writing) sift through the ethical questions surrounding physician-assisted suicide, and as further debate regarding euthanasia catches fire in the public sphere. She addresses many of the questions of this debate explicitly in her autobiographical tale of her life with her son: What role can suffering have in human life? How do we value lives that do not only ever contribute economically to our system, but that even require additional resources from us? Who is responsible for caring for the sick, disabled, and elderly? What does it mean to be a citizen and to have rights, and what, if any, changes should be made in the case of the disabled?

 

Thomson’s book is at once a story of her family, and a story of disabilities activism. She illuminates the world of raising a child with severe disabilities in Canada as one of facing constant battles with healthcare providers, funding and support associations, governments, and the general public. Throughout her book, she points to the central issue being one of public perception of the rights of people with disabilities versus those of people without disabilities, and how and why they do and should differ. She argues, through introducing her reader on a personal level to her son and revealing the intensity of love and dynamism present in him and his life with his family, that people with disabilities are exactly that: people, and citizens, and as such, deserve the same rights as other citizens of our country.

 

This seems like a simple statement, but she develops the idea further with each chapter, filling out the different facets of her argument in an essay-like form. Without quite realizing it, Thomson is forced into a position of not only have to defend the value of a vulnerable person’s life, but also of trying to convince a public audience that seems to have largely ignored or forgotten any sort of existing definition at all of what it means to be a human person. Our system is one that tends to privilege economic success and contribution over any other activity, and mistakes the possession of wealth for an end rather than simply a means of attaining freedom and happiness. As a result, it becomes altogether too easy, and in fact, intuitive, to base a person’s worth on his or her abilities rather than nature. Drawing from various theologians and philosophers, Thomson rejects any definition of human worth that is based in abilities, capacities, or relationships. Rather, she states that worth is intrinsic, that dignity is part and parcel of being human, and that as such, it cannot be added to or taken away.

 

Threaded throughout Thomson’s narrative are instances of frustration with the way in which Canada has set up care, education, and treatment for children with disabilities. She paints her move towards disability activism as the logical outcome for any parent faced with the inefficiencies and injustices she faced. She states simply that, “activism was and continues to be a core part of my sense of being a good mother.” As an activist, she has brought her vision of citizen rights for people with disabilities to the forefront of discussions surrounding funding, accessibility, and care. She emphasizes the rights of parents in particular to not be forced into providing 24-hour, lifelong care for their child with disabilities, but to still be able to maintain an active role in their child’s life without relinquishing custody or any parental rights to the state. Describing the numerous challenges that parents of children with disabilities face, Thomson seeks to convince her readers of the necessity for change, and of the need for the support from those outside of the disabilities community.

 

One would assume that the title of her book is a way of describing Nicholas’ life, confined as he is now as an adult to his bed, unable to move without assistance and intense pain. Thomson instead describes to the reader how the title—taken from a line of the Trappist monk Thomas Merton’s autobiography—was actually chosen as a way of describing her own life. She describes the loneliness that is faced by most parents of children with disabilities, and the very real experience that she and many others have had of letting go completely of their own desires, ambitions, and dreams for their futures. She describes this process as painful, strengthening, and finally, life-giving. She realizes that giving up a cornerstone virtue of our modern society, freedom of choice, was key to her survival and happiness. In submitting to her role as caregiver, and in choosing to love her son Nicholas, “normal” things like going back to work, going out with friends for a carefree evening, and traveling, among others, were simply no longer options. She suggests that mourning these losses is what seems to be expected of her by those who would hear her story. But a state of mourning is no way to live life. She again draws her reader back to the ways in which she insists that her life has become more beautiful and full as a result of caring for Nicholas, and of all of the ways in which he is a gift to that world around him that so quickly moves to pity and then dismiss him.

 

While The Four Walls of My Freedom is a book that provides a well-written and heartfelt appeal to those within and outside of the disabilities community to consider more deeply the ethics of rights of the vulnerable, it could more correctly, and perhaps usefully, be read as a collection of essays. Thomson’s penchant for repeating parts of her narrative, reusing anecdotes in different contexts, and citing the same research or scholarly opinions in different chapters means that by about the halfway point, the circularity can begin to leave the reader a little confused. After another few instances of the same, that confusion develops into a touch of frustration. It appears that the book, which begins very much as an autobiographical narrative, interspersed with some helpful references and contextual information from experts and scholars, is rather a collection of essays that uses Thomson’s story as a jumping off point from which to tackle larger issues of disability rights, discussions of the definition of the human person and of citizenship, and the injustices present in a system that fails to recognize the vulnerable as entitled to care. These are important messages to share, of course, but might be more effectively communicated with some help from an editor.

 

Despite the organizational weaknesses of the book, The Four Walls of My Freedom remains an excellent resource that introduces and familiarizes the reader to the issues that are most relevant for those who care for vulnerable people in our society, whether they are people with disabilities, the elderly, or the sick.  One cannot help but be drawn into the story of her life in all of its difficulties and joys, and to sympathize deeply with the arguments about ethics that is prevalent throughout her tale. 

 

8
Sunday
Mar
2015

Chantal Hébert's The Morning After

 

Something big was going to happen that night—that much I knew. Growing up in a nationalist household in Québec as a child of the 80s, I was all too aware of the gravity of that night’s referendum on sovereignty—a difficult word at that age. I had seen my mother’s distraught look as revered Bloc Québécois leader Lucien Bouchard announced his improbable diagnosis of flesh-eating disease; I had heard extended family members debating the colour of their future passports; and I had watched, past my bedtime, as Prime Minister Jean Chrétien made a last-ditch appeal for reason. Very little of it made sense to me at the time, and answers to my innocent questions remained vague and convoluted—but something was about to happen, I knew it. Only what, no one could tell me.

 

***

 

Twenty years later, it turns out that answers are still hard to come by. While much ink has been spent chronicling the campaign and its aftermath, very little remains known about either camp’s intentions should voters have tilted the scale the other way. Would a narrow Oui vote have been enough for a unilateral declaration of independence, or would it have led to a redistribution of powers within a federal system? What were the leaders really planning behind the double-entendres and political euphemisms? Still, no one could tell me.

 

In comes The Morning After, star political columnist Chantal Hébert’s hard-hitting account of the day that almost was. With the help—and personal contacts—of former federal politician Jean Lapierre, Hébert set out to interview the key actors at the centre of the referendum saga in a bid to understand what would have happened in the event of a Yes vote. Leaders, cabinet ministers, and aides all opened up—some requiring more prodding than others—and unpacked their version of events as Hébert’s recorder blinked on. Page by page, one could sense the tension in the interview room as painful memories finally saw the light of day, two decades after the fact.

 

The resulting revelations are perplexing, even to a veteran of the political arena like Hébert. As both sovereignists and federalists detail the events leading up to that fateful night, the reader is left with only one logical—if frustrating—conclusion: that neither side had seriously prepared for the possibility of a Yes vote. In fact, silent chaos seemed to dominate political war rooms even as votes were being counted, with the country on the brink of breakdown. On the Oui side, Hébert reveals, Québec Premier Jacques Parizeau and star campaigner Lucien Bouchard were no longer on speaking terms over their disagreement on the meaning of a Yes vote (Parizeau favoured outright independence, while Bouchard remained more cautious). Meanwhile on the Non side, Chrétien had admittedly not entertained the possibility of a Yes vote, leaving his team scrambling for a plan as polls surged in favour of independence later in the game. At times, it feels as if the whole ordeal had been lifted from a bad satire: our political leaders had all been peddling a vision that even they had not yet worked out.

 

Hébert is ostensibly aghast at these juicy revelations—and the book is chock-full of them—but refrains from overt judgement or scrutiny. And therein might lie the one shortcoming in this work: while it is evidently a must-read for political junkies and well-informed citizens alike, The Morning After reads like well-presented interview notes peppered with historical context, and little more. This was, it seems, Hébert’s goal all along—to record this untold part of history for others to analyze—and she has certainly achieved it. However, readers seeking Hébert’s trademark analysis will be left fending for themselves, for the most part. One could hardly be faulted for wanting just a little more of a great thing.

 

***

 

Something big indeed almost happened, that day in 1995—that much I still know now. Only what, it appears no one ever knew. As is often the case in Canadian politics, it took Chantal Hébert to find the answers to this decades-old mystery, however baffling and unsatisfying they may be.

 

22
Tuesday
Apr
2014

What Colour Is Your Gene?

 

It has now been over a decade since the final full sequence of over 20,500 genes was mapped by the multi-national Human Genome Project. It is still surreal to fathom the enormity, and the seeming anti-climactic finality of this achievement. For the numerous scientists who collaborated on this project, their final aspiration was not simply the conquest of a biological puzzle per se but was rather in translating this newly compiled information into health for individuals and across populations.

 

The full realization of a personalized, “genomic medicine” is still very much an ongoing venture. Dr. Sharon Moalem's third book, titled Inheritance, seeks to imprint the relevance of genetic research on rare conditions to everyday life. As a practising physician and clinical researcher, Dr. Moalem's writing style is bereft of jargon, filled with anecdotes, and presumes little to no prior knowledge on the subject.

 

Citing the reality of over 6000 rare genetic disorders, Dr. Moalem sets up the advice of the British physician James Paget as his guide. Paget, writing in the British medical journal The Lancet, in 1882, wrote that “[n]ot one of them [rare diseases] is without meaning...[n]ot one that might not become the beginning of excellent knowledge, if we could answer the questions – why is it rare? Or being rare, why did it in this instance happen?”

 

The reason rare genetic disorders occur so infrequently is that complex, multicellular animals operate under the principle of “biological totalitarianism.” This is the mechanism that, when functioning as it should, “promotes cellular obedience at all costs, an obedience enforced by receptors on the surface of any potentially misbehaving cells.” Yet the paradox is that our DNA – our hereditary material and biological instruction manual – is susceptible to change through individual actions, and stimuli from the environment. The remarkable fact is that even a a very small change in genetic code has a significant transformation in its expression. Dr. Moalem recounts the story of a young boy in Lahore, Pakistan who had a small mutation in the SCN9A gene leading to his accidental death as he jumped off a roof on a dare, as he was completely devoid of feeling any pain.

 

There are various points in the book where the reader is encouraged to have their exome (partial) or whole genome sequenced as it has become relatively cheaper to do so. While this is true – in 2000, $10 million could barely sequence 1 person while the same amount, accounting for inflation, can sequence up to 400 people – there is still stubborn bottlenecks due to the complexities involved in computing and interpreting this genetic data. The practicality of access continues to be restricted due to these barriers, and are far more in abeyance in developing countries for the same reasons, amplified.

 

Dysmorphology is using careful observation of the physical appearance of the patient to deduce the probability of different genetic disorders. While this harkens discomfiting thoughts of a phrenologists' fingers tracing the contours of one's skull, Dr. Moalem outlines how noting certain features of the patient's face can yield useful medical clues aplenty. In fact, just last month, Dr. Moalem and his team won a hackathon event at MIT for developing a smartphone app that can help identify “predispositions to certain diseases based on facial structure.”

 

The possession of such intimate knowledge raises a slew of other issues. At a time when truly private spheres continue to diminish in a world of prevalent social media and connectivity, privacy concerns are inescapable. Dr. Moalem raises the thorny issue of “genetic discrimination” where someone could be turned down disability or life insurance based on their profile. Perhaps even the prospect of a romantic relationship becomes contingent on genetic capability; the possibilities for exclusion abound. The practise of gender-selective abortion is prevalent in China, and this is inadvertently abetted by the ultrasound technology that enables parents to identify the sex of the foetus. The case of Ethan, who does not even have the a trace of a Y chromosome, who was still born male is a caveat against eugenics of this kind. The personal ebullience of Dr. Moalem shines through in the passages where he praises the courage and patience of his patients with rare conditions, sincerely expressing how much they have to teach us, not just in biology, but in being human.

 

Availability of genetic data need not always be so irredeemably filled with pitfalls. Parents Amy Garland and Paul Crummey were placed under surveillance in the UK under suspicion of abuse when their infant son had numerous broken bones. It was only much later that the source was diagnosed as a symptom of  osteogenesis imperfecta or OI, a genetic disorder which impairs the quality of collagen that constitutes healthy bones. The acknowledgement of the physiological fixity of transgender traits – whether they be kathoeys in Thailand or hijras in the Indian Subcontinent – have helped usher in increased social tolerance in very conservative societies.

 

Personalized genomic medicine seems like a panacea to rigid rules, and holds the promise of maximal individual care. In this way, genetic abnormalities can nullify many behaviours that are deemed harmless and even recommended. Having Hereditary Fructose Intolerance means that most fruits and vegetables could be toxic. A mutation of the CYP1A2 gene could make caffeine consumption dangerously raise blood pressure. Genetic variation on the MTHFR gene could mean that mothers would need much more than the recommended dose of folic acid to prevent neural tube defects in their babies, while also contending with the elevated levels of folic acid masking a deficiency in Vitamin B12. An interesting conundrum to explore would be whether an overly individualized approach to medicine could erode any authoritative clinical directive? Evidence exists that cigarettes' causation of lung cancer varies along the probability scale based on personal genetic make-up. Would tobacco or junk food companies now be exempt from blame if they can shift it to someone's genes rather than their unhealthy product?

 

While much of the prose is straightforward and plain, Dr. Moalem occasionally slips into sublimity:

Like shadows behind a rice-paper screen, we do occasionally catch glimpses of our inner workings. We feel our pulse race when we're excited. We notice a but scab over, then slowly disappear altogether. Through it all we are oblivious to the hundreds if not thousands of genes being continually expressed and repressed to make it all happen seamlessly until the inevitable happens.

 

The inevitable, mortality, happens to us all. Much of the advances gained, and the many more still to come that alleviate pain as illustrated by Dr. Moalem, are no doubt welcome. Yet in all the manic fear and control exhibited in seeking to be a “previvor” (a preventative survivor) there is a great unease in facing death and suffering. Perhaps not all of us can wrestle and attain the grace attained by Tolstoy's Ivan Illyich. But it would be a greater tragedy to not try at all. 

 

10
Wednesday
Apr
2013

Upper Canada Patriarch: A review

 

Upper Canada Patriarch is the story of  German-American immigrants, Conrad Ausman and his wife Lydia who opposed their families wishes and decided to come to Canada in the years following the American Revolution. As such, they would qualify as Late Loyalists rather than the Fighting Loyalists who actually partook in the armed struggle. The book stems from the author's research into his family's genealogy and  attempts to address the questions as to why his ancestors would willingly choose the hardships of  a pioneering life in frontier Canada over a more settled and culturally comfortable existence in the Mohawk valley of upper New York State. Since some of my own German-American Loyalist ancestors emigrated from the very same towns and villages (Herkimer and German Flats) mentioned in the novel, I readily jumped at the chance to read this novel. Like the author, John  L. Ausman,  I too seek answers as to why my fighting Loyalist forbears would have chosen to bear arms in defence of a culturally and geographically foreign monarch rather than to have chosen their neighbours' easier path of going along to get along in the full flow of  what was to be America's first civil war. What were the political issues, the cultural context of the day which would impel young Americans to forgo the proclaimed liberties of the new Republic in favour of investing their lives in pioneer villages under the vagaries of a seemingly discredited constitutional monarchy?  

 

Conrad Ausman's idée fixe is the desire to independently farm his own land and to acquire enough of it to pass on to his children as their patrimony.  It is this vision which animates the entire novel. Conrad fell victim to the German tradition of  his parents bequeathing their land to Conrad's younger sibling in return for his brother's obligation to look after them in their old age. With the price of land rising rapidly in the Mohawk valley, Conrad is forced to look either westward to Ohio or north to Canada as the base in which to quite literally plant his dream for his own and his progeny's future. When the new republic's need for taxation to stand up to foreign powers and fight wars hits the remote and  isolationist German-American communities of the Mohawk valley, divisive conflicts arise which propel Conrad and his new wife towards the perceived tranquility of Canada.

 

The novel is broken into years and not chapters. At times this format appears a bit clunky and jerky as the author attempts to back fit the story spanning decades into the broad sweep of  historical events as disparate as the War of  1812 and the Upper Canada rebellion of 1837.  Characters and their development within the framework of the novel are a bit wooden and stunted. What it is however is a very  credible projection of the interplay between the novel's principal characters and the defining historical events surrounding their lives which illuminates a narrative on early life in pioneer Ontario.

 

Ultimately, Conrad's attempt to control the destiny of his children in his country of adoption utterly fails, his offspring independently pursuing their own dreams and exploiting new commercial activities and opportunities in the rapidly developing province. The author is to be commended for shining a light on little known aspects of  life in Ontario during this critical period of the province's development. With the exception of the present year  wherein the War of 1812 has been of necessity brought to the forefront, it is a period  of Canadian history of rapidly declining interest to our educational institutions caught up in the multicultural embrace of new immigrants for whom the tales of early struggles and tragedies in their country of choice holds little concern.  Conrad and his noble wife Lydia eventually lie in unmarked graves. Their struggles and broken dreams long forgotten by new waves of immigrants who would give their weathered gravestones, even if they existed,  scant attention as they flash by on daily commutes between block Buster Video and Walmart over the remains of the pioneers which lie beneath the asphalt and concrete wilderness of  what is now the modern Greater Toronto Area.

 

10
Sunday
Mar
2013

The Visible Dead

 

A young couple lingers in their car saying good night when a knock at the window interrupts their intimacy: a male voice shouts: "get out!..."  From this moment on the story that Steven Heighton shared with the audience at the Fall Ottawa International Writers Festival takes surprising turns.  Steven Heighton, better known to many for his novels Afterlands and Every Lost Country, or as an award winning poet, comes into his own also as a master craftsman of short fiction with his recent collection, The Dead are More Visible. With his exquisite touch for exploring the extraordinary as part of ordinary lives, Heighton creates small gems of stories, full of twists and turns, some humourous, some haunting; always absorbing.  He explains that he chooses between genres to match the idea, the topic or the "faits divers" he has come across, aiming always to remain, as long as possible, as surprised as the reader as he creates the narrative. Often he does not know where a small incident like a couple in a car at night will lead him.

 

Each of the eleven stories in this collection is tightly scripted, yet intricate in revealing the inner workings of his protagonists' minds and actions at a particular moment in time. Heighton focuses his lens on one or a few ordinary people caught up in unusual, even dangerous situations, real or imagined. While placing his characters into emotionally trying or physically challenging circumstances, each story explores one or more themes of human behaviour, understood as a building block for what confronts us and, by extension our society and humanity.

 

Take for example the long distant runner in Journeymen. You almost feel like holding your breath picturing the runner who, on the other side of fifty, is taking up the challenge of a very uneven race. When you, as a non-runner, can relate to what is going on in the runner's mind, as the adrenalin in his body rises, when you feel with him the uneven ground of the track. You then realise that you are in the hands of an exquisite wordsmith and inventive storyteller.

 

Among eleven stories not all will capture your attention in the same way or with the same intensity. Still, all are very engaging and worth reading, as Heighton persuasively builds the narrative tension in different ways and/or introduces some surprise aspect into a story when you least expect it. In Nought And Crosses, for example, the narrator analyzes a lover's last email that suggests a hiatus or more in the relationship. It is one of the most deeply moving ex-lover's laments that you can imagine, an intimate dialog with the beloved. In Outrip, a kind of Survivor challenge story, the reader follows an increasing hallucinating convict on his five-day punishment trek through the southern British Columbia desert. Written in the second person, we participate, like a voyeur, in Ben's inner struggles and physical efforts to move from one water hole to the next, long stretches apart. His dialog with the Fisher, an either real confrontational character or one grown out of the convict's exhausted mind and body like a Fata Morgana, reveals deeper existential reflections. For me this story stands out for its depiction of the landscape as well as its brilliant imagining of what happens to the human mind when one is lost in the desert (physical or metaphorical) and a water source is not anywhere near.

 

The deeper Steven Heighton reaches into the inner pathways of a human mind, the more they engage the reader and trigger reflections that complement our reading. Even the more externally descriptive or action oriented stories, such that of a young English teacher in Japan, learning the language from a bizarre primer and trying to teach the children fun and games, or the title story of a woman's unpleasant encounter while maintaining an ice rink at night, develop more than a punch and never lose the connection to the inner world of the protagonists. 

10
Sunday
Mar
2013

Cosmo!

 

Cosmo, as a collection, gives credence to its name as being vast - at points nebulous -and somewhat of a mystery. While the amalgam of short stories sets the reader out on what could become an interstellar journey, sometimes it doesn't quite get to the vast corners to which it initially positions itself to reach.

 

The opening salvo entrenches the reader in the world of Miss USA, and a corner of her mind that is weighing on her stiletto-presence in particular. While it plays on the hope that insecurity can be a bind that ties even the most beautiful to the rest of us, it evokes sadness more than anything else.

 

The second stop on the trip comes in the form of a sister and brother struggling with family and finding refuge in the bravado and theatrics of professional wrestling. Brushing on the sensitivities of mental deficiencies, the author manages to not evoke sympathy or pity while treading on what is everyday life for some. He succeeds in this regard, pulling together the family for a moment while showing the reader that it is likely fleeting, a flash of light that will likely not last but will be remembered.

 

The journey takes a strange and imaginative turn with a road trip featuring naked, rather, several naked, Matthew McConaugheys. Drawing again on pop culture references that are relatable to most 20 - 40 somethings, the author delves into the minutiae of a celebrity mind.  It toys with how we think celebrities could think, in a rather cockish and absurd way that brings in elements of different fictional characters that are both fun and memorable. However, bringing the object of the subject's former affection can't quite quell the sense that like the protaganist, the writer is equally lost when it comes to the direction of the narrative.

 

Taking a dark turn from fiction to fact, we swerve close to the madness of a horrific shooting that occurred in Ottawa several years ago. Whether real or imagined, using actual quotes from former employees and peace officers leave a bloody trail.

  

In a more measured volume, the reader is taken into the mind of a mother who misses her son but also is having trouble coming to grips with modernity and his life outside of her. The allegory of a dying animal in the background doesn't really cover the pained ground between mother and son, nor does the animal die, leaving the reader a bit challenged on how to feel. Again, in the next entry, we are brought into the mind of another celebrity whose recent financial mishaps are well publicized in the news. In this case, Canadian icon Leonard Cohen decides to take the Subway Challenge, and begins to consider endorsing the product. While the imagery of a chubby Leonard Cohen grasping his love handles naked in the mirror does bring a smile, a one sided email exchange leaves the reader wanting more than simply a laundry list of complaints about a mediocre product by a fading and hesitant celebrity spokesperson.

 

In other incarnations, the writer takes to the pain of waiting for death by an author whose chosen pleasures, smoking and writing, have produced ashes and cancer, and little else. One has to wonder if the author is indulging himself rather than us on his own fears. He also waxes and coos over one Miley Cyrus, again making the reader wonder what is carefully crafted by the imagination and what is simply spilling over extemporaneously from his mind. However, tying the knots of the universe together is not as easy as it seems. Such is the case with Cosmo.

6
Wednesday
Mar
2013

Dark Diversions

 

John Ralston Saul’s tragic-comic picaresque, Dark Diversions, is cleverly structured to begin as a short story collection and emerge as a cohesive novel. Surely a less knowledgeable, searching and well-traveled author would be unable to deliver with this bold structural experiment, yet Saul, largely by the individual fascination created by each of these increasingly absurd tales of the rich and privileged, certainly succeeds. There was a unique sense of satisfaction I received upon seeing the threads of the dozen or so short stories tied together, both in theme and plot, in the final chapters of the novel.

 

At the simplest level, it is a story of the drifting rich, in the vein of Fitzgerald, or even Tolstoy—a story of those modern souls possessing ample supplies of money, culture and power to keep them entertained for the remainder of their lives, yet unable to manufacture a healthy marriage, a sense of fulfillment, a love for life, even to stop themselves from doing something inconceivably evil.

 

Many of the stories echo the great modern stories from around the world. There is Gatsby-esque nouveau riche fraud, living in New York, driving a leased Rolls-Royce, showing paintings in a rented mansion, “most of them third-rate by first-rate artists,” infiltrating the upper tiers of New York society through a carefully plotted façade. 

There is the Anna Karenina influenced tale of Jack, a filthy-rich American oilman pursuing an extramarital Mexican tryst with the clever, pretty blonde, Patty. He claims to love her deeply, yet can’t help but attempt to run her off a cliff. Like Anna, he feels trapped by love without any traditional structures holding it together. “How do I know she needs me; I mean, except for the money?” he asks in a moment of drunken vulnerability.

 

These are stories about the tragic intermingling of power and love, and certainly they are dark, sometimes to the point that reciting the plots alone would make them seem morbid and gratuitous. But Saul has a knack for compassionate characterizations, wry one-liners and wicked turns of phrase, and he successfully turns the merely depressing into black comedy, often with profound implications.

 

Thematically, the novel is typically postmodern: the tension between subjectivity and objectivity, and humanity’s capacity (or lack of it) for self-knowledge feature prominently. Saul’s technique in addressing these themes is brilliant, and is the most engrossing aspect of the novel: he begins with an anonymous narrator, a continent-hopping journalist, objectively narrating dramatic stories of the rich, the famous, and the powerful. Progressively, however, the stories become more intertwined, the transitions smoother, and his own personal involvement deeper. The first half dozen or so narratives hold almost no literal connection, and could be featured separately in a short story collection. The final three are deeply personal; they are the tragedies of the narrator’s own life. The narrator is incapable of maintaining his separation from the “dark diversions” he chronicles, and the final three stories tell of his own personal tragedy.

 

It’s a concept that Saul has talked of openly: “I came to like the idea of a narrator who spends the whole book creating the impression that he’s not involved, when really, it’s all about him,” he said in an interview with the Toronto Star. It isn’t till the last pages, though, that the reader becomes privy to this in Dark Diversions. The first half of the book is the narrator, Thomas Bell, gazing objectively on the face of evil, attempting to understand it. It isn’t till the middle that Bell even reflects on why he is doing this: “Something about the face of the devil and the unlimited forms it can take,” he muses, considering his penchant for “collecting dictators.”

 

In the last three stories, Bell is shocked from the illusion of objectivity that he has clothed himself with, and is horrified to find the evil that he has been examining in demagogues and adulterers is also within himself. By his inaction, Bell watches a woman die. Then, in the most compelling and complex narrative of the novel, Bell is given a set of diary entries from a recently deceased man whom Bell had known in his youth. Bell sees himself through the eyes of another, and his paradigm is shattered as he realizes that in his quest for knowledge through the stories of others he had failed to gain knowledge of his own self.

 

Saul is at his strongest in these rich concluding stories; he is at his weakest in the chapter “the narrator pauses to reflect,” in which the narrator does just that. It’s a bold but, I think, unsuccessful delving into the postmodern trend of “meta,” self-reflexive storytelling. The narrator, at this point, comes right out and has a chat with the reader about the story thus far, asking why, up to this point, we haven’t even heard the narrator’s name, and don’t know a single personal detail about him. The narrator then criticizes the late-twentieth century novel for being too prescriptive, and not letting the narrative speak for itself, which, the narrator then goes on to admit that that is what he is in the process of doing, and suggests, ironically that you ignore his musings: “this is crude narrator interference and you should ignore it.”

 

While the section is good for a laugh, I must say that I think you should actually take the narrator’s ironic advice here. The points made in the “meta” section are made more poignantly in the final chapters of the novel through the narrative itself, and I found myself wishing I’d had the privilege of unearthing the themes from the story myself rather than being handed them, tongue-in-cheek, by an ironic narrator.

 

Thankfully, even during the rare points where Saul’s innovation falls flat, a satisfying emotional core is maintained. It’s a story about a narrator’s realization that he is more than a narrator; he is the story’s life and blood, whether he likes it or not.