Cockroach by Rawi Hage

 

Review by Menaka Raman-Wilms 

 

Rawi Hage’s second novel, Cockroach, inhabits a bleak world. The story centers on an unnamed narrator who believes that he is part human and part cockroach. He is an  immigrant in Montreal and is living a life of poverty on the fringes of the rest of society. 

 

After an attempted suicide, he finds himself in court-ordered therapy, where he reveals parts of his history before he arrived in Canada. As he tries to carve out a place for himself in Montreal’s immigrant community, he struggles with the cold winter, with mental illness and poverty. He is constantly on a search for food, and feels that he has more in common with the cockroaches that scrounge around in his kitchen sink than with the people he passes on the sidewalk.

 

Cockroach is supposed to repulse the reader – everything from the title to the descriptions of living in poverty has the ability to make us uncomfortable. The novel presents a side of society that usually remains unseen, because it’s easier to hide it than acknowledge that it’s there. 

 

This book is not the grateful immigrant tale that most Canadians want to hear: this is the story of where our system fails, of how our country can be both refuge and prison, opportunity and oppression. The novel showcases this over and over again through the life of the main character, as well as various other members of Montreal’s immigrant community, such as Majeed, who came to Canada to find freedom, and who is free to be a taxi driver but not resume his career as a journalist. It is also evident in the life of the character known only as the Algerian professor, who has too much pride to acknowledge that he is living in a basement on welfare, and spends his days carrying a briefcase and talking about philosophy in smoky cafes. 

 

The story also includes middle class characters that find the histories of these immigrants exciting and exotic, who use their presence for adventure and escape, instead of seeing the reality of their situations. 

 

Cockroach delves into the nuances of the poor immigrant experience and lays everything bare. At times the main character imagines himself with six legs and antennae, staring up at people’s feet, or crawling underground while the rest of society strolls above, oblivious to him. It is a metaphor that masterfully articulates his struggle with integration and poverty. But it doesn’t ask for pity: rather, the book asks for his life to be acknowledged.

 

Instead of identifying with the main character, the reader must try to understand him. He lives a poor life, but he is also a man who steals and manipulates people, someone who still finds ways to exercise his control. He exacts revenge on people by breaking into their houses to take items of significance and eat their food. The story is also a portrait of mental illness and crime, of a man obsessed with women and haunted by memories of his childhood, and the book examines how all these aspects of his life are intertwined and dependent on one another. 

 

The writing is raw and poetic. Hage’s sentences have the power to evoke intense images, creating a visceral reading experience. It’s also filled with dark humour. While the nature and subject matter of the story can at times run the risk of alienating the reader, the lyricism of the writing is a constant salvation.  

 

This is a novel that’s not always easy to read, but perhaps that is the point. Cockroach aims to unsettle. It asks the reader to open their mind, and is a rare reading experience in today’s landscape of modern Canadian literature. 

 

Cockroach was published in 2008 by House of Anansi Press.

 

 

 

Ruined Abbey by Anne Emery

 

Reviewed by Jim Napier

 

It’s April of 1989, and this, the eighth in Anne Emery’s Collins-Burke mystery series, finds Father Brennan Burke preparing to deliver Mass in his New York City parish when he receives an ominous phone call: his sister Molly has rung from London to tell him she’s in prison, arrested for being a member of a “proscribed organization” – legalese for the IRA during those tumultuous times.  All too aware of the British’s treatment of Irish rebels, Brennan and his brother Terry immediately set out for London to see their elder sister.

 

The very next morning they visit Molly in prison, and the news is grim: she’s suspected of being involved in a plot to bomb Westminster Abbey, and nearby, a policeman apparently responding to the scene had been murdered.  Although they seem not to believe Molly was actively involved, Special Branch is certain that she has information about who was.  It’s not an unreasonable suspicion: stretching back generations, her family has long been actively involved in the quest for Irish independence. Moreover, Molly, a university academic, had recently delivered a paper railing against the abuses of the seventeenth-century militant Oliver Cromwell, who had been responsible for the deaths of many Irish during the English Revolution.  Although her talk had been offensive in and of itself, shortly thereafter the London police had received a threat to bomb a statue of Cromwell shortly before a memorial ceremony by his supporters.

 

When Special Branch is unable to make their case, they are forced to release Molly.  Together with Brennan and Terry she makes for the nearest Irish pub to celebrate, where they are reunited with their cousin Conn.  But the family is aware that they’re being watched, and fear their conversations are being monitored as well.  Her fears are confirmed when, soon afterwards, two detectives from Special Branch visit Molly at home and question her closely about Conn.

 

Flashback to 1970, and the death of Molly’s grandfather, Christy, also an Irish patriot: the mourners relive their treatment at the hands of the British, and the hatred for the British is palpable.  On hand to witness the events is Finn, Molly’s uncle, whose patriotism hardens as he listens to the mourners recount their harsh treatment at the hands of the Black and Tans.  It is a moment that will influence events nearly twenty years later.

 

When the police arrest Conn for the death of the policeman and taking part in the plot to blow up Westminster Abbey, the family fears the worst, and it falls on Brennan to delve into the shadowy world of the IRA in an effort to free his brother.  He fears that Finn may also be involved, and before long he wonders whether any member of the Burke family can escape the suspicions of the British authorities.

 

Anne Emery is a gifted storyteller and a conscientious historian, and shows once again why she is one of Canada's finest novelists.  She meticulously documents the tensions between the Irish and the English leading up to the open conflict that has persisted for centuries.  Her treatment is even-handed: advocates for both sides of the dispute will have no cause to complain that their side has not been fairly treated.  And as readers will come away with a better understanding of the merits of both sides, they will also come to appreciate just why the Irish conflict proved for so many years to be so intractable.  Emery has accomplished all this while still giving readers a well crafted and entertaining tale, in which she manages to include a finely-woven subplot involving a Special Branch officer who isn’t quite what he seems, and a hint of romance that spans the two sides of what came simply to be known as The Troubles.  All in all, Ruined Abbey is a literate and original tale rooted in the dark history of a complex people, one well worth reading.

 

Ruined Abby is published by ECW Press.

 

 

 

Ask Me about my Bombshelles

 

Reviewed by Alex Binkley

 

Ask Me about my Bombshells blends the basics of fireworks shows, drug dealing, police investigations, protesting for money and opposites attract romance into a fun read. Author Robert Barclay obviously like things that go boom in the night whether outdoors or in a shed.

The story really does explain much of what happens in a fireworks display and how it has transitioned from the hand lit displays of the past to the high-tech spectacles that we watch in wonder these days. It’s a lot of hard work and technical savvy.

 

He also weaves in a Romeo and Juliet like romance involving Julia and Rocco, the younger generation of l families that are long standing rivals in the fireworks business, who make the sparks fly on their own all the while keeping their affair from their families.

 

He also manages to make a lot of Columbian dope go up in smoke, much to the consternation of cops trying to shut down the drug-running biker gang. The gang receives its ultimate reward in an indoor fireworks performance. If you have ever tired of perpetual protestors, you will enjoy the author’s treatment of Sue and Terry, rabble for hire who having run out of other themes, are willing for a price to picket fireworks displays as a great threat to the environment.

In the end, it works also out for the star-crossed lovers, but only after a lot of family wrangling and drama.  

 

Ask Me about my Bombshells is published by Loose Canon Press.

 

Rawi Hage Interview

 

By Menaka Raman-Wilms 

 

The Ottawa Review of Books spoke to Rawi Hage in Toronto last month. Hage’s first two books, De Niro’s Game and Cockroach, were nominated for the Govenor General’s Award, and Cockroach was also a 2014 Canada Reads finalist. Hage recently released his third novel, Carnival. He is the winner of the International IMPACT Dublin Literary Award, the Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction, and the McAuslan First Book Prize. He lives in Vancouver with author Madeleine Thien. ORB spoke to Rawi Hage at the Windup Bird Cafe in Toronto as he was preparing for an evening of literature and cuisine with the WBC's Sang Kim.

 

 

ORB: De Niro’s Game and Cockroach are both highly acclaimed stories with political undertones. Do you ever feel a personal responsibility towards writing? Do you think writers ever have an obligation to politics, or a duty to tell certain kinds of stories? 

 

RH: It’s a choice. Every writer chooses, there’s no obligation in writing. Maybe there’s morality to a writer’s own political views, or maybe not. Some writings are apolitical and very successful. I guess it is more of an individual thing. Ultimately though, everyone is contributing to culture, whether it is inherently political or not. And is culture political in nature? I personally think it is. 

 

ORB: Does fiction have power in a way that nonfiction and other art forms do not when it comes to dealing with political issues? 

 

RH: Fiction had a power, and it still has a certain status. But I don’t know what the future holds. I think the medium is becoming a bit too long for this new generation, who doesn’t have the same attention span as the older generation. With Twitter, everything has become so immediate and shorter, and life has become faster. I don’t know to what extent people will still be reading a book of 200 pages, where the language is figurative, where there are all these images. It might shrink and become an academic study field eventually. That’s the pessimistic view. But then again, I meet a lot of young people who still read, so I might be totally off about that. 

 

ORB: Cockroach got a lot of press last year when it was chosen as a finalist for Canada Reads, CBC’s annual book debate. Samantha Bee passionately championed the novel – do you think her defense of it has changed the way people approach Cockroach? 

 

RH: Canada Reads gave the novel exposure, of course. Cockroach is a critical book; it’s a dark book. I think fundamentally Samantha Bee is not just a comedian, she’s an activist, and not surprisingly, humour is becoming more and more effective in this political game. Interesting to see, but not surprising. There’s dark humour in Cockroach, a lot of dark humour, and maybe Samantha related to that. But I think what she really rallied around was the poverty, and ultimately she championed marginality. There are a lot of people who relate to the book and her defense of it, especially immigrants. They relate to that kind of experience, but there’s no collective immigrant experience. 

 

ORB: Cockroach has certainly added to the discussion on the experience of Canadian immigrants. Do you feel that Canada’s conversation around immigration is evolving?

 

RH: I think immigration has started to take a different toll on Canada. It’s become more and more about money. I don’t think a poet gets much of a chance to arrive here these days – it’s all about money now. The nature of immigration has changed. Immigration is now based on how individuals fit economically within Canada, not culturally. Maybe Cockroach is about the last poor immigrants that came to Canada. I don’t know. I think we’ll see more of a changed society in the future. With time, Cockroach might seem more and more unlikely. There might be historical value to it, because more and more the immigrants who are coming here are rich. I think our views on immigration and immigrants might really change over time. And this is specific to Canada: Canadians excel at this type of systematic immigration. It’s quintessentially Canadian. In Europe, immigration is a mix, because you have all classes, you still have refugees, illegal immigrants: Europe has a totally different immigration, that’s why it’s much more confrontational. Ours is becoming immigration where you have to have a certain skill, or you have to have money. 

 

ORB: In the last few years you’ve begun mentoring emerging writers – what has it been like to teach writing? Does teaching creative writing make you think about the process any differently? 

 

RH: I’ve done a residency that involves some one-on-one consultation, I don’t think of it as teaching. I’ve done a few workshops. My residency was open to the public so anyone could send their manuscripts and we’d discuss it. It was a whole mix of people. It’s very enjoyable. I find it easy. We ended up talking about many things, not just writing. It’s about personal connection. I think most people who start writing really want some kind of assurance whether they should continue or not. So far, I’ve managed to keep all of that separate from the process of my own work. Writing is such a subjective art. I think writing is the result of something, of some kind of intellectual acquisition. It’s the end of something. 

 

ORB: Many Canadian writers are now emerging from post-secondary creative writing programs, which is quite different from previous generations of Canadian authors. You’ve seen this process of teaching creative writing first-hand during your residency at Vancouver Public Libraries. What are your thoughts on this system of teaching creative writing? 

 

RH: I do it, but I don’t always believe in it. I try not to fall into clichés. I try to show the wider aspect of writing. I don’t teach it the same way; sometimes there’s too much methodology and technicality in teaching writing. I still don’t know what character development means. It’s a big industry though, and it’s branching into many things. I feel I’m not really in a position to say because I’ve never taken these courses, but I believe in natural born writers. I tend to think that way. That might be dismissive of many people, and again, many writers went to school and did those programs and are doing great. 

 

ORB: Do you have plans for what’s next? Are you working on something at the moment? 

 

RH: I’m just going to go back to Montreal, sit down and focus on the next project. I am working a bit. But I find that teaching can be a bit of an interruption, so I’m going to take some time away. I’ve seen the world now; I’m going to go back to the cave and write. 

 

ORB: Thank you for taking the time to speak with the Ottawa Review of Books.

 

 

ORB's John Delacourt speaks with Michael Mirolla

 

The author of a clutch of novels, and short story and poetry collections, MICHAEL MIROLLA describes his writing as a mix of magic realism, surrealism, speculative fiction and  meta-fiction. 

His publications include the novel Berlin (a 2010 Bressani Prize winner); The Facility, which features among other things a string of cloned Mussolinis; and The Giulio Metaphysics III, a novel/linked short story collection wherein a character named “Giulio” battles for freedom from his own creator; the short story collection The Formal Logic of Emotion; and two collections of poetry: Light and Time, and The House on 14 collection, Lessons in Relationship Dyads, is scheduled from Red Hen Press this fall. 

 

Born in Italy and raised in Montreal, Michael now makes his home in the GTA. In January 2010, Michael and his business partner, Connie McParland, took over the reins at Guernica Editions, one of Canada’s oldest, still extant literary presses.

 

ORB: I want to start by asking you about your own work: your novels and short stories primarily, while touching upon your poetry and work for theatre. If we can agree that, with the first strike on the keyboard or scratch of the pen, each approach represents a kind of enquiry into the nature of the world in which we live, what does a novel accomplish for you that a story does not, and how and when do you know that what you have on the page has taken on the shape of one or the other? 

 

MM: For me, a novel allows for layers of complexity that a short story does not (and perhaps cannot) achieve. A novel allows you to build a world while a short story focuses (for the most part) on one construct, one event within that built world. For instance, it would be extremely difficult to take the events that occur in my novel Berlin and tuck them into a short story. However, at the same time, there are areas where the short story (or rather a series of short stories) can work its way towards a novel. Here, I’m thinking of a series of linked short stories such as The Giulio Metaphysics III. In The Metaphysics, we have one character named Giulio appearing in each of the short stories. While we can never be absolutely sure that this is the same Giulio from one story to the next (given that we sometimes see contradictory elements in the character), the stories do move in a novel-type of direction. Towards some kind of conclusion. Even if that conclusion turns out to be circular. Normally, you would have that world already constructed in your head (or the framework at the very least) before putting pen to paper. It’s at that point that you already know whether you’ll be constructing a novel or a short story.

 

ORB: Related to this, what does poetry accomplish for you that your prose does not?

 

MM: Poetry to me allows for a compression of language and a concreteness of imagery that prose doesn’t usually achieve. Poetry does away with the “mundaneness” of having to explain, of having to set things up in a linear fashion. With poetry, you can skip the connections and go straight to the heart of the matter. That’s where the concrete images come in. I think there’s an irony in the creation of good poetry. The irony is that poetry might arise from an emotional response to something or someone but, in order to create a good poem, the poet needs to go beyond the “gush” of the emotional response. That is, a lot of mental discipline, a lot of thought, goes into a gut-wrenching emotional poem! Or at least it should. In terms of reaction, a poem offers the type of instant satisfaction that the prose can’t. Finally, a good poem takes you closer to the “thing-as-it-is” than other forms of writing. The poem is an effort to do away with intermediaries between you and the objects of the world. Of course, it’s an impossible task and no one will ever touch the “thing-as-it-is” because, as direct as poetry is, there still remains a barrier, the barrier of human consciousness.

 

ORB: Character, image, form or perhaps even the shape or sound of a line. Where does the writing process usually begin for you?

 

MM: Interestingly, poetry for me arises out of a feeling, usually something vague and unclear to start. However, as I start to write it down, it becomes sharper and more in focus. Various links start to connect and then the lines form, shape themselves around/towards a predominant motif, theme. These days, those themes and motifs are starting to become predetermined so that I’m thinking about collections rather than individual poems – and how each poem will fit into the collection. When it comes to short stories, the process usually starts with a situation that encompasses a theme as expressed through a character or set of characters. The same thing when beginning the writing process for a novel – except that the “situation” is replaced by a narrative arc, a grouping of events and relationships, many of which I already have in mind when starting. I like to create the “spine” of the narrative and then hang the story on it, something like strands of narrative DNA. Often these evolve into sets of relationships that pair off and struggle to come to terms with things such as identity, being, existence versus nothingness, and finding the best pizza!

 

In her essay, “Two Paths For The Novel,” Zadie Smith compares and contrasts a certain generic “lyrical realism” in novels versus those that evince what she calls a “radical deconstructive doubt” that “questions the capacity of language itself to describe the world with any accuracy.” She suggests the latter path for the novel has been by and large abandoned. Yet the closer one analyzes this binary opposition, it seems to posit a false dichotomy. On the one hand, there is the suggestion of a naïve faith for the contemporary realist novel to render the world, through the formal conventions of a “straight story” more than explicable but somehow deeply affecting, with luminous moments of insight and catharsis. On the other, there is the novel that destabilizes our sense of character and creates radical breaks from our expectations of resolution, continuity, or even authorial voice (to name just a few tactics). The prose provokes a contemplation that can touch upon the nature of identity and the way we frame experience and memory. It might be more helpful to see a significant amount of contemporary work as positioned on a kind of continuum from, to use Smith’s terms, radical doubt to naïve faith. 

 

I’ve spent a good part of my writing career trying to decide what exactly good writing is all about – as a writer, editor, publisher. I’ve come to the conclusion that this is the sort of determination that can only be made on a personal level because it depends very much on the background knowledge that one has picked up along the way. If someone is not aware of the type of fiction, for example, that has worked its way to the cutting edge in the first part of the 21st person to simply sit in front of the Big Eye in the living room and catch the latest episode of “Lost” or “CSI”. Writing today is (or should be) ironic. It has to be. How can someone write a Dickens novel with a straight face? Or a Raymond Chandler mystery? You must be aware of what came before in order to create. Otherwise, all you’re doing is mimicking. Aping. Re-inventing the literary wheel. A favourite metaphor of mine is to compare that re-invention to the making of a Juggernaut which then crushes the inventor to insignificance. It’s comfort reading for mass consumption. Like McDonald’s supersized dinners. I’m interested in the craft of writing. The art of the word. Stories, per se, mean nothing to me. It is how they are enveloped, wrapped, sliced and diced, that counts for me. It is also the realization that, no matter how “realistic” and “naturalistic” a story may seem, it is in fact a piece of fiction, a desperate attempt to connect words to things. It doesn’t reflect or represent the world. It is its own world, something unto itself and separate from the world of things. Herman Hesse recognized that in Siddhartha. Those who try to use words to capture the world are barking up the wrong tree. Writer William Gass famously said: “In every art two contradictory impulses are in a state of Manichean war: the impulse to communicate and so to treat the medium of communication as a means and the impulse to make an artefact out of the materials and so to treat the medium as an end.

 

The other thing that interests me is the meta-fictional nature of writing, not just by those avowed writers of meta-fiction but also those who insist they are merely documenting the already-

created universe out there. Put simply and without getting too technical about it, the writing no longer masks itself as an attempt to reflect some external “reality.” Rather, it recognizes its self-

reflexive nature. Put another way: the “reality” that the work of art presents is not something that exists on its own “out there” but is rather something that is constructed during the act of writing. Representational art about the external world gives way to projective art about the internal world; construction takes the place of imitation.

 

In his introduction to an edition of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Leo Bersani analyzes what is often considered an exemplar of the realist/naturalist genre and calls it “an early, only half-explicit, not yet fashionable attempt to locate the drama of fiction in an investigation of the impulse to invent fictions rather than in any psychologically, morally, or socially significant ‘content’.” Bersani goes on to say that “the care with which Flaubert sought to make language transparent to reality consecrates the very opaqueness of language which he dreaded.”

 

The implication here is that the harder Flaubert tried to take himself out of the picture and present the “reality” around him without any interventions ... the harder he worked to shape the word into the object ... the more he ended up putting up road blocks to that “reality” and obscuring the precise objects he wished to capture ... and this happened through the very act of dazzling readers with his writing skills and masterful ability to craft a fiction.

 

ORB: Where would you situate your own novels and stories on this continuum?

 

I don’t know about a continuum ... my own short stories ... novels ... I like to think that they’ve gone off in different directions throughout the years. My first stories were strange in themselves ... often surrealistic ... little vignettes ... Later, the stories tended to become more self-referential ... tongue in cheek ... wrapped in ironic envelopes ... as if I were rubbing the reader’s nose in the fact that they were only stories after all. I guess the epitome of that approach occurred in something like “The Truth-Tree Method” from The Formal Logic of Emotion collection. The Giulio Metaphysics III linked-short-story-novel takes it to another level: the creator outright tells the reader that he is manipulating the character; the character rebels against the creator, reflecting I guess the existential state of many people today; the character and the creator become one and the same trapped inside a space where they/he must scratch upon the wall to tell the story and thus to invent themselves, to invent their history, to invent their identities. And my novel Berlin is about a janitor in a Montreal mental institution writing about a philosophy professor who goes off to Berlin during the period just before the city was re-united, a weird combination of schizophrenia, possible worlds and second order logic theory, and love stretched to the extreme. So, if there is a continuum, I would say that my short stories and novels are on the far end of the meta-fictional side of that continuum.

 

ORB: Whenever a conversation takes this particular direction, however, I always feel that there’s the shadow of another dialogue behind it: one about art versus commerce. That dialogue must be all too familiar for someone who has now become a publisher as well.

 

MM: Yes, it’s a fine line. Both as a writer and a publisher, there is the need to survive. As a writer, one can survive by being true to one’s art while at the same time taking on other tasks to supplement what is at most a pittance earned from book sales, honoraria, and payments from journals. As a publisher, you don’t have that option. The brutal truth is that, as much as we’d love to publish loads of experimental poetry and fiction, we also need to make enough money to pay for the necessities that come with running a publishing house. There is a certain amount of compromise without which we wouldn’t have the opportunity not to compromise. A dilemma that anyone who cares about art must face sooner or later – as an individual and as a business.

 

ORB: Do you feel that as a reader your tastes have changed taking on your role with Guernica – and more to the point, has it changed how you write as well?

 

MM: More to the point, do you see Guernica’s redefined mandate, to publish “fine Canadian literature with a special understanding of different cultures” as working to ensure that not only alternative voices but alternative ways of writing poems and telling stories still find a readership and a place within our culture?

 

After taking over Guernica, I have had to separate my own writing from that which I’m reading for the sake of possible publication. One of the things I’ve found is that alternative voices are a lot easier to find than those who can write well in alternative and/or experimental ways. In fact, I’m still searching for the author who combines those two elements well. And like Picasso and his straight line, I’m a firm believer in the idea that one has to learn the art and trade of writing before one can start experimenting. But I do hope that what we publish forms a mosaic of different voices, some traditional, some more experimental, that together work to enhance our understanding of ourselves and other cultures.

 

ORB: You’ve been quite open about the fact that Guernica is not, given all the doom and gloom of a post-Amazon, post-Kindle-and-Ipad marketplace for books, going to revert to some bunker mentality of retrenchment, but that you’re going to embrace new technologies and new approaches to connect books to readers. Can you speak about how you might accomplish this?

 

MM: Well, when you work your way down, it seems to me that there’s nothing intrinsically special about the printed book. And I must confess that, as much as I love physical books, having owned thousands in my time and having spent way too many hours sneezing amid the dusty bins and slightly stale repositories of used book stores, I don’t have a manic belief that a bunch of paper with scribbles on it between two somewhat brighter and shinier pieces of cardboard is the only way to do things in the publishing world. I see physical books as simply one method of getting ideas across, one vessel among many. It is the ideas that count ... the words ... the patterns that reflect a thinking, emotional, exploring brain. I have no problem with the use of eBook technology to get our books to the market. 

 

More importantly, if we want to survive as a publishing house, we have little choice. Proper use of this technology will allow us to better reach areas such as libraries and universities which are moving more and more to eBooks. We can also reach those who don’t usually go to bookstores and who like the convenience of being able to download hundreds of books for their serious holiday reading. These who consider their cell phone apps as the end all and be all.

 

ORB: If you can imagine a young, word-drunk Michael Mirolla, just starting out today as a writer, what would you tell him?

 

MM: I would tell him to examine himself very very closely to determine if this is really what he wants to do (knowing now what he didn’t know then). Ask himself: what drives you to write? For me, the motivation is far in the past. I started writing when I was in elementary school, after spending a great deal of my time under the dining room table reading Tom Swift and his many adventures in outer space and alternate universes. What drove me to write? I don’t know. It was just something that I had to do. It was an essential part of me (this was before I learned that there is no such thing as an essential part of a human identity). By the time I got to high school, I was substituting fiction for some of the English Lit questions on exams. I still remember a portion of a story that I wrote about a city in the jungle and how a person was standing on one of the walls of the city as the jungle crept back in to reclaim its natural spot. I described the person’s hair blowing in the wind. The brother (my teachers were the Christian Brothers of Ireland at St. Pius X in Montreal) who read the piece was bald and he wrote that he was envious of the character whose hair was blowing in the wind. 

 

Would I have the same motivation this time around? I don’t know. In any case, I would tell the young word-drunk Mirolla to find a nice quiet garret, write till he’s ready to explode, and then get out there and promote himself until everyone’s sick and tired of listening to him. I would tell him to knock on the doors of publishers and literary agents, to believe in himself and his talent, to continue honing that talent, to learn all he can about what came before him. If at the end of all that, if all he’s left with is his own writing, so be it. He at least can say that he has given it his all.

 

ORB: What do you think the publishing landscape will be like in ten years?

 

MM: That’s a very difficult question to answer. And much depends on what happens to the various government funding agencies. Without this funding, I would say that 90% of the independent book publishers in Canada would cease to exist. If the funding remains intact, then the publishing landscape should look pretty much as it does now, with publishing houses producing a mix of print and eBooks.

 

ORB: What kind of work do you see yourself writing in ten years, given that you have written with considerable distinction in a variety of forms? Given that it has taken me more than 20 years to complete a novel (and I’m still working on it), I would see myself producing pretty much the same material as I’m doing today and continuing to work in the various formats as I’ve done in the past (with a special push towards plays). Or at least embarked on the same search – to make the words come as close to the “thing-as-it-is” as possible without getting burned by the unshadowed image. All the while with the knowledge that there is no “thing-as-it-is” outside of the word itself. To quote Maurice Blanchot from his masterwork, The Space of Literature: “The work is mind, and the mind is the passage, within the work, from the supreme indeterminacy to the determination of that supreme. This unique passage is real only in the work – in the work which is never real, never finished, since it is only the realization of the mind’s infiniteness. The mind, then, sees once again in the work only an opportunity to recognize and exercise itself ad infinitum. Thus we return to our point of departure.”

 

 

The Adventures of Claire-Never-Ending by Catherine Brunelle

 

Reviewed by Ulrike Durán Bravo

 

Nine chapters, nine women, nine generations. Every single of the nine Claires is so interesting that a whole novel could have been written on each. Instead, Brunelle presents a collection of magical snapshots of each of the women's lives. 

 

All of Brunelle's Claires are strong-minded, strong-willed, proactive, feisty and incredibly human: “Back home they called me a witch... Whore is an improvement, don't you think?” Brunelle's writing is fun and therefore bounces over the heavier issues. This makes for an uplifting and comforting read: no matter that her protagonists are often discriminated females born into a male society. With them, we can run away with the circus, live on trains, fly around the world in a giant yellow balloon. We can sail continents and leave our abusive husbands. We can see into the future and be proud of our past. 

 

The men are mostly loveable and not very scary – not even the violent or alcoholic husband. There is one little racist who sets up a correction school for natives who is the most worryiang character, had he been given more space to develop. Does it matter that men are secondary characters? Hardly. After all, this is a book about the women, not their husbands. And wouldn't it be nice to live in a society where all women were so strong we never had to be scared of men?

 

She paints Canada as a romantic place – a hint of Anne of Greengables shining through. Nature is lush and innocent, a friendly place and yet wild. Magical, like Narnia: “Between her and the owl, the forest listened: crack, snap, swish, roar, and the river's current pushed against the nearby frozen riverbank.” Despite claiming that she hardly does any research, as a reader you utterly believe the years that she describes by some simple props she uses: listening to a walkman in the eighties, steam engines in the early 20th Century, right through to the emigration to the New World in the 1820s. 

 

In the end, this book is all about the ripple effect. Each chapter has references to the future daughters, as if those yet unborn daughters were always in those womens' consciousnesses. In Brunelle's novel, the daughters are shaping their mothers, instead of the other way round. Your children's lives and and their children's lives, will always and forever be affected by the choices you make: “like a pebble from Heaven that splashes in the ocean. In a gathering circular wave, their words were carried beyond the ship, beyond the ocean, beyond the shore, beyond the ends of the earth and beyond space and time itself: rippling, swelling and crashing from one life to another, and another, and another.”

 

 

 

Nothing to Hide by Nick Simon

 

Reviewed by Craig A. Smith

 

After a deadly virus in Vancouver, the Canadian government suspends civil rights to ensure the health and safety of citizens. Given the situation, the people of Vancouver are willing to allowthe government to take far greater power over the lives. Although the disease was contained before reaching epidemic levels, “the Scare” opened the door to a redefining of privacy and intrusion. 

 

Such is the premise of Nick Simon’s debut novel Nothing to Hide, which addresses issues of state surveillance and invasive social media in contemporary life. The narrative follows William Potenco, an emotionally fragile, perpetually anxious, young personal data harvester, who is in love with a webcam girl named Julia living in Montreal. Fighting with his conflicting desires for success and escape, Will remains continuously frustrated by authority, but he is unable to confront the authority figures in his life, nor is he able to articulate his frustration with these figures and the work he does for them. This changes with the hiring of Tom Vickers, a jaded dropout from a PhD program in History. Tom awakens Will to the problems of the kind of work they do for Eureka! and gives Will a taste of life outside the grey, sanitized monotony he has become accustomed to. 

 

Nothing to Hide is narrated from a number of perspectives. Sections are presented to us through the observations of Doctor Officer Elias Degair. Degair is the official in charge of monitoring Will’s reluctance to conform to antiseptic mediocrity. With the new privileges given the Public Health Bureau, Degair monitors Will’s “illness” by watching his every movement through cameras installed across the city, and recording each click on his keyboard through Real—a massive social media corporation, and the ultimate panopticon dominating human interaction for the characters in this story. As Degair and his team of health officials struggle to create a strictly sterilized utopia with a contented and tolerant populace, Will, with the encouragement of Tom, is seen more and more as a threat to this utopia. 

 

Simon’s at his best as he explores the dangers of government and social media control of personal information and its use as an unproblematic resource. His critique of North American life hints at the racism and class issues lying just beneath the surface of tolerant and politically correct liberal society. His story deftly drifts between serious criticism and amusing caricatures of liberal values. When Simon’s characterization of Vancouver society slides into blunt satire, the results are often hilarious, such as when the ubiquitous “No Smoking” signs are replaced by 

the dysphemistic “No Smokers” signs. 

 

Witty and biting, Simon’s novel is a delightful, well-thought out criticism of contemporary Canadian values. Anyone who has witnessed the unending efforts to sanitize life in North American cities will applaud Nothing to Hide.

 

 

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