Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Why the P.I.?

Speaking personally, Sam Wiebe's most remarkable literary accomplishment was persuading me the Private Investigator genre could be successfully pulled into the 21st Century -- never mind 21st Century Vancouver, British Columbia. I devour crime novels and consume the odd mystery, but tend to choke on the gumshoe-for-hire versions of both.

Hammett launched the gumshoe Galahad and Chandler spun the archetype into the stratosphere of the collective Western consciousness where its orbit continues to fascinate -- but after them it's been a long and wide history of "Look, I can do it too!" efforts remarkable for how badly they pale in contrast to the Masters.
Plus ça change
Humphrey Bogart is largely to blame. He became the voice, if not quite the physical embodiment, of the Private Eye. In the half-century following The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep viewers heading to the movies or just turning on their televisions heard wannabes taking a stab at embodying Bogie's world-weariness and guarded compassion, hopefully without sounding like Rich Little. The people who managed this feat -- Jack Webb and Robert Mitchum, for starters -- were truly exceptional. The rest, well . . .

That's the way the voice reads on the page, also. The words hit my eyes, my brain conjures Los Angeles circa 1941 as occupied by a very young Lauren Bacall, and I find myself reaching for a comic book instead.

Then there's the business -- the actual business -- of being a private investigator. Most real-life PIs devote their energies to uncovering fraudulence, often at the behest of insurance companies. If you know anybody who's fought for rightful claim to personal injury money, this line of work isn't the sort of "calling" most people hold in high regard.

Missing Persons is another, albeit lesser, line of work for these people -- it is a very rare PI who can run a business devoted to the matter.

Wiebe acknowledges this impediment and cuts past it with a particularly adroit move that got me onside very quickly. He places his protagonist Dave Wakeland within a security firm that permits him to take on the occasional lost cause so long as he commits to the larger business strategy. Midway through the novel a client sends him to Winnipeg to bodyguard/babysit the client's client. Wakeland complies, but turns the tables of the agreement so dramatically it becomes immediately clear why: a) his firm gives him such breadth of agency; b) he hates the job; c) he still sticks with the job.

In addition, unlike other practitioners of the genre, Wiebe brings in online search tools and other digital tech that are now the absolute mainstay of everyone on the planet. He's a rare writer in this regard -- another reason why I thoroughly enjoyed his book.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Invisible Dead by Sam Wiebe

Invisible Dead (Wakeland, #1)Invisible Dead by Sam Wiebe

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Some choice quotes from Sam Wiebe's PI narrator, Dave Wakeland:
"Whoever had called Vancouver a city of glass hadn’t been talking about my city"
"Far from being kind-hearted rustics, the islanders are real estate swindlers, corporate sleazes, tycoons, stock manipulators. And lawyers. Lots of lawyers. Bowen Island is a refuge for the undeserving"
"[The architect's] fondness for concrete and despair helped earn SFU the unflattering distinction of having the highest suicide rate among Canadian universities"
"And I know the idea of a person having a soul is laughable, obscene even, given this world of mass destruction, of epidemics, of fast food genocide. It is unprovable and it is silly and I hold on to it, clinging, with all my terrified strength."

The last is as metaphysical as Wakeland or Wiebe get, but it's enough to leaven what is an almost punishingly physical read.

Wakeland's pursuit of a woman -- a junkie and a prostitute -- who vanished a number of years ago is quixotic in the extreme: by now the number of women who have "disappeared" from the streets of Vancouver would be enough to populate a city all their own. The investigation nets him more than one beating, and leads him down unexpected paths that connect seemingly disparate social strata.

Wiebe seems heavily influenced by both Ross and John D. MacDonald, dragging their bruised and weary Galahads into a world where digital cameras and Google searches necessarily contribute to the intrigue. With this novel Wiebe's Vancouver is poised to join the MacDonalds' LA and Florida as a locale that mirrors the disparities and vagaries within the human heart.

This is accomplished contemporary pulp noir, in other words -- a terrific launch.

View all my reviews

Saturday, August 19, 2017

"Was Opa a Nazi?"

Via Mary (who tells me a Cree connection sent it her way) -- another Menno prone to voicing squiffy ruminations wonders: "Was Opa a Nazi?"

Ms. Klassen concludes, "It’s more likely [Opa] had come to understand his own position in the world as neither German, Russian nor Canadian. In Russia, he had learned that he wasn’t a Russian; in Canada, he learned that he wasn’t Canadian. And sitting by his shortwave radio, he eventually decided that he wasn’t German either. And the only label left to him was that of Mennonite." A lonely spot to find oneself in, to be sure.
Fortunately, the sunsets are to die for.
I'm grateful to her for posting this -- the question has an unfortunate piquancy, given the past week's headlines and social media caterwauling.

Speaking of which, this video of Arnold Schwarzenegger's address to the President is making the rounds.

I find his performance cogent and punchy -- and surprisingly moving, as well. It is perhaps worth remembering there was a time when the MSM and social media were not so gentle with Mr. Schwarzenegger. A right-wing upstart in the Land of the Left who almost certainly had designs on the White House, it was rumoured he had a script for a pro-Nazi film he was keen to see made. Then there was this ongoing business of sexual entitlement. And so on. Today, his is the voice of moral clarity.

I'm wondering who or what has changed, but perhaps that's a thread none of us is keen to follow.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Who is What? Miscellaneous thoughts re: Joseph Boyden, identity

We are having a controversy up here in Canada -- Joseph Boyden, one of our brightest literary lights, is in some hot water.

In his fiction and non-fiction Boyden has applied himself exclusively to a deep exploration and excavation of Indigenous Canadian identity. He has also claimed that identity for himself -- a claim that, no matter how you parse it, appears to have been made in haste without the rigor of consideration he applies to his work.

This past weekend the Toronto Globe & Mail (Canada's self-proclaimed newspaper of note) published "The Making of Joseph Boyden" a lengthy investigative report by Eric Andrew-Gee. I thought the piece was impressively sourced and researched, yielding some unexpected insights into the affair. I also wondered what sort of piece might have been written had Andrew-Gee been given the time and space to meditate on why he was commissioned, and why he chose, to write this piece.

Newspapers run on deadlines, of course, and these days the deadlines are especially tight. If we disregard the fury and flurry of social media, this country still has established cross-platforms like Macleans, The Walrus, The Literary Review of Canada, etc., who without doubt have their own Boyden-related long-reads in the pipeline. "First to publish" means something in this environment, particularly when newspaper sales remain in a tailspin (our current elected leader doesn't conjure enough revulsion and horror to get us subscribing, it would seem).

Introspection was a luxury Andrew-Gee could ill-afford, in other words -- and I get that. So in that spirit here are a few non-mulled-over observations of my own on the matter.

First, the obvious: Boyden writes well. His characters are, in the main, explicable and empathetically rendered. He pays attention to the five senses and their effect on a person's thoughts, on the way a person is. His novels are immersive experiences that leave deep trails in the psyche -- people I've discussed his works with often tell me their dream-life is altered after reading him.

I do have some kvetches, mostly minor. Despite his years in Catholic school Boyden doesn't "get" Catholicism, and up until The Orenda I didn't see much effort applied to addressing that deficit. Consequently his portrait of the evil the Roman Catholic Church has inflicted on indigenous people occasionally slips into simplistic villainy -- a posture very much in tune with the current cultural temperament and certainly adequate for keeping the narrative engine chugging along, but less than satisfactory for readers holding out hope for the sort of insight that penetrates one's ideological bulwarks.

But his portrait of indigenous life prior to the colonial-religious assault is, for this pasty Protestant reader, a bit-torrent of continual discovery and awe.

As for this "pasty Protestant" business . . .

Mennonites have invested themselves in the quest for indigenous justice. It's not a "100% all-of-us, right across the board" deal, but it is significant enough to comment on (Google "mennonite indigenous" and you'll quickly get the gist). More pertinent to this conversation, it's an issue our literary aspirants take on board -- just about 100% all-of-us, in fact (including Yours Truly). If anybody has called-out Rudy Wiebe or David Bergen for appropriation of voice, I've yet to hear of it.

There is, of course, a difference of scale on these matters. So far as I know, neither Wiebe nor Bergen has claimed any indigenous connection deeper than acquaintance or possibly friendship. Boyden has claimed tribal affiliation, at times quite explicitly -- an understandably contentious issue.

So on that matter . . .

Tribes* don't produce novels, but they sure do produce novelists -- unintentionally, for the most part. If the novel is a métier you aspire to, be forewarned -- you cannot freaking win with your own people. There will be a bunch who will back you up -- the usual gentle agitators drawn, like you once were, to the losers and freaks among us -- and there will be a few who angrily call you out, but mostly you'll be shrugged out of town.

It's the shrugs that wound the deepest.They know the truth, these shruggers. You're not doing an honest day's work, for one thing. More to the point, you think you get us, but you really don't. You're of us, but you're not one of us. You're a pretender -- a fake, a fraud, and a phony.

The kicker is, this write-off is the truth, pretty much. In their zeal to capture the public imagination, fakery is a skill most young novelists are quick to adopt and hone as persuasively as they can. You're telling stories anyway, where exactly do you draw the line when called upon to make claims of earnest self-disclosure? If I think back to my lean and lonely SASE** days, had I been granted any sort of media spotlight at all there were precious few masks I would have had the inner fortitude to eschew. How else are you going to hit the jack-pot?

I am not suggesting Boyden's motivations are anywhere near as craven as, say, James Frey's.*** Boyden evidently identifies deeply with the fight to assert indigenous identity within an appropriated landscape. And if his claims of Anishinaabe identity are at best doubtful, the possibility he is from genuine Métis lineage is not at all out of the question.

But to my eyes this is the money-quote from Andrew-Gee's piece:
Lying at the heart of so much discomfort with the way Boyden has presented himself over the years, is a deep, basic gulf between the broad European and Indigenous notions of identity formation. The “Western” paradigm of self-actualization, of creating one’s identity through a process of lonely soulful questing, is to a certain extent incongruous with the North American Indigenous tradition of forging identity through community sanction and reciprocity.
For many Indigenous thinkers, the idea that someone would claim to feel Anishinaabe or Métis, and that others would put stock in that feeling, is nonsense.
Hm. More, please.
*"Tribes" -- a word I use in the Abrahamic sense, naturally.
** "Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope"
***Though Boyden's claims do strike me as somewhat akin to Michael Chabon's mischief.

Thursday, August 03, 2017

The Limits of Critique

I am feeling somewhat convicted after reading Michael West's appraisal of The Limits of Critique by Rita Felski. West's thoughts are short and to-the-point, so please read it for yourself. But here's a snippet that might suggest where I'm heading:
Felski shows that an exclusive commitment to critique can actually preclude recognition of one’s loves, of those things to which one is erotically attached (in the broadest sense of the term). “Why,” she asks, “are we so hyperarticulate about our adversaries and so excruciatingly tongue-tied about our loves?” 
[She] asks what might happen if we looked not “behind the text” but “in front of the text, reflecting on what it unfurls, calls forth, makes possible.” In doing so, she seeks to rehabilitate the validity and importance of what we might call “literary desire”: the force that drives you to reread your favorite book yet again; or to finish that work of genre fiction even when you know the ending; or to press a beloved book awkwardly into a distant acquaintance’s hands in hopes that she, too, will come to love what you love and might one day talk with you about it.
"Tongue-tied about our loves" -- hm.

Three years ago I bought the brand-new hardcover of Kem Nunn's latest novel, Chance. I read it, and I thought, Yeah, that's really good. That is really good! I pulled out a handful of passages that stuck to the ribs on the first go-through, scribbled a few tentative thoughts, read some of the other reviews, then finally thought, I'm not sure I've got what it takes to explain how I'm responding to this. [shrugs] Meh -- the reviews are good, that oughta be enough.

Yes, that is just the sort of prick I can be.

So consider this yet another promissory notice from Yours Truly. To be continued (and no, I won't be commenting on the Hulu show) . . .

Although I see no reason why I can't include a photo of co-star Gretchen Mol.