Dilettante's Diary
JANUARY 29, 2020
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Head to Head
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The date that appears above is the date of the most recent reviews. As new reviews are added, the date will change accordingly. The new reviews will appear towards the top of the page and the older ones will move further down. When the page is closed, the items will be archived according to the final date on the page.

Reviewed here: The Ghost Project (Theatre); Lil' Red Robin Hood (Theatre); Old Hope, The Curfew and Found Wanting (Short Stories); Hurricane Season (Essay); Waiting for Eden (Novella); Presidio (Novel); History of Violence (Novel); Who Killed My Father (Biography); Solitude (Social Study)

The Ghost Project (Theatre) conceived and performed by Karie Richards; original production directed by Jeff Culbert; design by Glenn Davidson; music by John Sheard; BMO Incubator, The Theatre Centre, Toronto; January 25,2020

A woman stands on stage alone, with virtually no props other than a chair, and tells us about other people’s encounters with ghosts. The stories come from her interviews with some fifteen people. She’s repeating exactly what they told her. But she impersonates each distinct character, with no accoutrements other than slight alterations such as a hat, a shawl, a pair of glasses.

The first character Karie Richards brings to life is a chatty young woman who brims over with the joy of communicating; in a giggly way she can’t help apologizing for giving us too much detail. The second character is a mature nurse, who speaks in a sombre, thoughtful way. The sudden change from one character to the other, as they’re presented by Ms. Richards, is so startling that it’s almost shocking – in a good way. And so it goes throughout this piece: one astounding change after another.

Among the people we meet are the refined British lady, the elderly German woman, the charming socialite from the southern US, the perplexed mother of a three-year-old and the matter-of-fact man who works behind the scenes in theatre. Each of them tells us about some disturbing encounter with a ghostly presence, apparently from the other world.

The piece is much enhanced by evocative mood music from John Sheard and atmospheric lighting provided by Glenn Davidson. At one point, Ms. Richards breaks into hauntingly beautiful song, unaccompanied.

And what might this all add up to? The message comes through most strongly in one of the final narratives. A woman is fighting back tears as she reflects on the death of her mother when she, the narrator, was just seventeen years old. Ah yes, don’t we all wish we could have some contact with those loved ones who are gone!

A more subtle theme emerges after some thinking about this performance: Ms. Richards’ respect for these people who have told her their stories. She presents them with such affection that you begin to realize that the most important thing about humanity is the way we pay attention to each other. One can imagine Ms. Richards doing a whole series of shows along the lines of: "People Who Talked to Me and Made Me Love Them."

[Disclosure: Ms. Richards is a friend of mine.]

 

Lil’ Red Robin Hood (Panto) writer Matt Murray; director and choreographer Tracey Flye; music director Joseph Tritt; music supervisor Bob Foster; starring A.J. Bridel, Michael De Rose, Eddie Glen, Sara-Jeanne Hosie, Lawrence Libor, Robert Markus, Daniel Williston. January 3, 2020; Winter Garden Theatre, Toronto.

Ross Petty’s pantos have been major features of the Toronto holiday season for twenty-three years. I’ve always heard great things about them but have never yet attended one, much as I wanted to. I love the concept of the traditional British panto: a skewed version of a fairy tale or of some folklore that brings in a lot of shenanigans, music and hamming it up to entertain "the whole family", along with a few naughty bits that just the adults will appreciate. One feature of the panto that especially appeals to me is the role of the "Dame": a man playing an older woman who is ungainly but thinks she’s beautiful and sexy.

The premise for this show was that Lil’ Red, a high school student in today’s world, is cramming for a world history exam. By some magic, he is swept back to the fifteenth century and finds himself in Sherwood Forest, among Maid Marion, Robin Hood, Friar Tuck and company. At first they’re wary of him, thinking his cell phone is some kind of weapon, but gradually they enlist him in their cause. Problem is, Maid Marion is a teacher and the wicked "Sheriffe" of "Naughtyham" (a woman) wants to stamp out education and seize all books so that she will be declared the smartest person in the kingdom. When she discovers that Lil’ Red has his world history book with him, she’s determined to get it so that she’ll be able to predict what’s going to happen in the up-coming centuries, thus proving her brilliance. So Robin, Marian and all have to work desperately to prevent this evil Sheriffe from getting the book.

The script, then, had possibilities, although the plug for teachers and education didn’t have quite the resonance that the producers seemed to think it might have. The actors were all good. My favourite was Sara-Jeanne Hosie in the role of the snarky Sheriffe who came across as a melange of Carol Burnett, Phyllis Diller and Cruella de Vil. The music and dancing were lively, to say the least. Most of the songs were, I’m told, based on familiar pop tunes. My ten-year-old companion recognized all of them; her forty-year-old father recognized a few. I recognized none.

But that’s not why I disliked this show. I found it brassy, strident, shrill and utterly charmless. It was more like a rock video than a panto. The visual effects, including the background projections, were psychedelic. The naughty bits weren’t funny; they were just vulgar for the sake of vulgarity. The "dame" was so bizarrely costumed that "she" looked less like a person than a confection of ice cream and candy. Worst of all, the amplification of the spoken dialogue blared so loudly that, instead of being able to identify who was speaking at some points, you were inundated with a wave of sound on all sides.

All of this might have been forgivable – on the grounds that the producers were trying to give today’s audience members what they expected – except for the fact that, at certain points, the show stopped dead in its tracks, a screen came down, and we were subjected to filmed commercials. Four of them: for Air Transat, The Toronto Star, the Bank of Montreal and some Mexican fast food chain that I can’t remember the name of. What an insult – to pay what we paid for the cheap seats ($80) – and then be obliged to sit through commercials!

But the audience, as far as I could tell, loved the show. Is this what theatre in Toronto has come to? Are people now willing to sit through commercials in live shows and to have their eyes and ears blasted with extreme stimulation? If so, I’m completely out of touch with what people want in the way of entertainment these days. Ross Petty himself came onstage at the curtain call and basked in the loving community feeling that he felt these shows had engendered over twenty-three years. It was all I could do to keep from booing or shouting something like "You know what you can do with your commercials!"

 

New Yorker Notables

Old Hope (Short Fiction) by Clare Sestanovich; The New Yorker, December 9, 2019

There are two main threads to this story. In one of them, a woman in her mid-twenties is thinking back to her high school days. She’s writing an email to an English teacher from that time, a man she found attractive and enigmatic. You get the impression that she’s somewhat ambivalent about this project; she’s not sure why she’s sending the email, not sure if it’s appropriate and not at all sure that she’ll get an answer. The other thread of the story is her friendship with Max, a young man who comes to talk to her at the shabby old house that she shares with some other young men. Max seems to want mostly to confer with her about his girlfriend, but, even so, there seems to be a sexual undercurrent in the relationship between him and the narrator.

Clare Sestanovich, the author, offers some fine perceptions from the point of view of a young woman. About her mother’s constantly warning her not to get her hopes up, she says that this admonition wasn’t about her mother’s fear of some dramatic tragedy happening. "She worried that I would crumple in the face of everyday failures, that I would gradually deflate – a quiet, unremarkable hissing – into a case of unfulfilled potential." When the narrator considers asking Max’s opinion about the emails to the English teacher, she says:

I knew I should permit myself uncharacteristic actions, but when I did act – and in general, I thought about acting more than I acted – I wanted to know if I was acting like me.

When Max lies back on her bed and his shirt rides up, exposing his tummy, she tells us "I might have touched it, if it weren’t so difficult to convey the difference between tenderness and desire." Their discussion about his attitude towards his girlfriend ends in a silence, the two of them not looking at each other "...which could have meant that Max wasn’t a good person, or that no one was, or that we wanted to sound smart and goodness was the kind of thing that always came out sounding dumb."

No question, then, that Ms. Sestanovich is a writer who can tell us a lot about what it’s like inside the mind of a young woman today. But almost nothing happens in the story; nothing is resolved. There’s no definite outcome to the situations with Max or with the English teacher. Is this a new kind of fiction, then? Is the author telling us that most fiction, with its satisfying endings and its clear messages, is fake? That real life isn’t like that? That real life doesn’t give us any such clarity? That was my impression on my first reading of the story. After thinking about it for a while, though, I came to see that there were – possibly – a couple of very tiny resolutions to the situations the author depicts, some very miniscule breakthroughs or insights, you might say. Maybe Ms. Sestanovich’s point is that that is as much as real life can provide.

 

The Curfew (Short Fiction) by Roddy Doyle, The New Yorker, December 2, 2019

A middle-aged male Dubliner is walking home on a blustery day. The city is feeling the effects of a dying hurricane that is blowing itself out. A curfew imposed by the authorities will take effect in half an hour. The man is enjoying the drama of it all. Given that this is a Roddy Doyle character, though, you can be sure that the man’s appreciation of the circumstances is expressed with salty humour and earthy language.

What you might not expect from Roddy Doyle is that the man’s thoughts take us into some piercing sentiment of the kind that such a character would never be likely to express vocally. He’s coping with the fact that he has just received some disconcerting information from his doctors. He’s trying to treat the news with off-hand irreverence, but, under the surface, you can see that that’s not working awfully well. Meanwhile, the sight of a woman on the street carrying a teddy bear in a baby sling has brought back thoughts of when his own children were little. The effect is shocking to a reader because you seldom hear a man – certainly not a man like this – admitting to such poignant and unbridled love for his family.

 

Found Wanting (Short Ficton) by Douglas Stuart, The New Yorker, January 13, 2020

A Glaswegian boy, just seventeen years old, tells us about his first sexual encounter. He was living alone in a rented room, still attending high school, still mourning the death of his mother and mulling over her impoverished funeral attended by her fellow alcoholics. (I get the impression this all took place some time ago, not that I find any specific reference to the date, but there’s no mention of the internet or cell phones.) Shy, bookish and gay, our narrator is ingenuous and naive. He doesn’t know how to reach out to any potential sex partner other than through an ad in the classified section of a magazine. He chooses to follow-up the answer to his ad that comes from a thirty-eight-year-old solicitor. It looks like this is going to lead to the tawdry disillusionment of so much sexual initiation but, in the last few lines of the piece, the narrator’s poetic, dreamy self breaks through like a ray of sunshine piercing the gloom.

 

Hurricane Season (Article) by David Sedaris, The New Yorker, December 2, 2019

By now, we know that David Sedaris’ writing isn’t going to be as hilarious as it used to be. Yes, there’s plenty of humour, but the point of his more recent essays tends to be his droll take on life, his characteristic way of pointing up the oddities of the everyday and ordinary. In this one, he’s reflecting on the 2018 damage done by Hurricane Florence to his family’s beach property in North Carolina. Lots of adjusting to changed circumstances and disappointments. Strangely, though, one of the main themes seems to be how his boyfriend, Hugh, annoys Mr. Sedaris’ siblings so often and in so many ways. Huh? Ultimately, though, a profound message comes through (one of the most profound I’ve ever heard from Mr. Sedaris): nobody else can truly understand the relationship between any two people who love each other and who struggle through their difficulties and disagreements, no matter what.

 

Waiting for Eden (Novella) by Elliot Ackerman, 2018

When reading books, I keep paper and pen handy to note points that I want to mention in a review. In this case, I made hardly any notes. Why? Because the entire work was so extraordinary and remarkable that you’d be marking every line if you tried to keep track of all the good things about the book. There’s hardly a sentence, let alone a paragraph, that’s predictable or commonplace or like anything you’ve read before.

The story centres on an American marine who has been badly burned in combat in Iraq’s Hamrin Valley. He’s lying in a hospital bed, his legs have been amputated and there are only seventy pounds of him left. He can’t talk and the state of his vision is questionable. We get flashbacks to better times, but the story is mostly about visits from his wife during the Christmas holidays when the hospital has a particularly dreary feel. What’s brilliant about all this is that it’s being narrated to us by the marine’s buddy who was killed in the same explosion that burned the marine lying in the bed. The narrator doesn’t tell us where he’s speaking from – no hint of heaven or hell – yet his presence as a sort of guardian watching over his buddy and his buddy’s wife comes through in a totally convincing way.

Another example of the book’s uniqueness: the head nurse on the ward in the military hospital is a burly middle-aged guy with curly grey hair and muscular arms. How likely is it that you’d ever expect such a person to appear as head nurse? And this man’s manner is fascinating; he’s cool and calm, calculating and practical, but not without a hint of darkness about his character.

One of the outstanding passages for me is the flashback where we see the wife driving her husband (the one later lying in hospital) back to the base as he’s shipping out for his second deployment to combat. The husband and wife have had to rise around four in the morning. Their getting up, getting ready, leaving the house and driving to the base constitute a scenario infused with a mute dread. It’s a situation where there’s nothing anybody can say to alleviate the anxiety, so nobody says anything. That’s so much more effective than a scene larded with a lot of emotive dialogue.

I question only one thing about the book. When the soldiers were in training to prepare them for imprisonment in an enemy camp where they might be isolated from each other, they learned a system of communication that aligned certain numbers of taps with certain letters of the alphabet. Something like Morse Code. The soldier who is lying in bed resorts to that system of communication at one point. It turns out that his wife can understand it. How could that be? I suppose it’s not inconceivable that she might have learned the same method of communication but I didn’t see any indication that she had.

But that’s a very small glitch in a work that’s so impressive. It turns out that the dead narrator had a crucial part in the story of his buddy’s family. In that respect, an element of plot does enter into the proceedings that might, otherwise, seem a bit static. One of the most striking things about the writing is the way the dead narrator suddenly introduces a thought about himself in the mind of one of the other characters. This literary sleight of hand has a startling effect. And the ending, in which the deceased narrator imagines a dream in which he meets his old friend, has the sudden, heart-breaking effect that writing seldom achieves.

 

Presidio (Novel) by Randy Kennedy, 2018

It’s the early 1970s and we’re in the area that’s referred to as the Texas Panhandle. Our guide – if you can call him that – is Troy, a man whose profession is stealing cars. The book starts with a sort of apologia that he’s writing for the enlightenment of any law enforcement official or, for that matter, anybody else who happens to find it. From time to time, the book takes us back to this document that Troy is writing in breaks between his other activities. For the most part, his days are described in what’s called close third person narrative. In other words, we’re hearing about Troy’s activities from an author who has a close eye on him.

The challenge that’s taking up most of Troy’s attention right now involves his brother, Harlan. Harlan’s wife has disappeared with all of Harlan’s money, so Troy is committed to helping Harlan find her and get the money back. This gives us something of a road saga with the two brothers. They haven’t had much contact in recent years, given that Troy’s business makes it necessary for him to keep on the move all the time, never settling anywhere long enough to be nailed for his car thefts. Their mother having died when they were little, they had a somewhat rocky upbringing. It wasn’t that their father was mean or abusive, just that his parenting was intermittent. His employment was sporadic, partly because of his drinking, and he’d disappear for weeks on jobs. Troy and Harlan had to do most of their upbringing themselves.

One of the strongest features of this book is character. Take for instance, Bill Ray, Harlan’s and Troy’s father. After their mother died, their dad settled "into a role that suited him better, that of admired older brother, unpredictably attentive, occasionally feared." He doesn’t strike us as the most respectable or dignified man, and yet he likes to take the boys to church. Not on Sundays, mind you, when they’d be bothered by a lot of busy-bodies, but on Wednesday nights when only a handfull of the faithful show up. Troy remembers that his dad once said that "if church was a place where people gathered under false pretenses at least it was one of the nice places where they did so."

Not that the characters of Troy and Harlan are any less interesting. Troy reminds me a lot of Jack Reacher, the hero of Lee Child’s mystery adventures. Troy isn’t the high-minded type who goes around the world trying to right wrongs the way Jack Reacher does, but like Reacher, Troy is a loner who keeps on the move. He doesn’t have any possessions. He makes do with whatever he manages to steal in any one job. Harlan, the less enterprising, less intelligent and less crafty of the brothers, has the uncomprehending hope of the eternal loser that makes you feel for him. "Even in a place this small, he had always managed to keep himself just beyond the boundaries of people’s attention, the way a crow in a field intuits the range of a rifle and settles a few feet outside its reach."

Another of the book’s strongest assets is atmosphere. You feel the ambiance of that scrubby flat land as strongly as you can feel any location in literature. Here’s a view from outside of town:

.... it wasn’t hard to imagine the fear a cavalry soldier must have felt here once as he mounted the mesa in pursuit of some enemy he couldn’t see. But the land no longer seemed actively hostile. It just seemed like one of the places on the earth that had long ago stopped bothering to hide its indifference.

Even the vocabulary helps to emphasize the strangeness of this place. Here are just some of the words describing the territory that were unfamiliar to this reader: caliche, Bermuda grass, grama water, mesquite, buffalo grass, salt grass, gyp water, chert, arrowhead, barditch, milo, shinnery oak, sotol grassland, palmettos, ocotillo, teosinte.

About a third of the way into the book, we encounter another major character, a girl who was a member of a Mennonite community in Mexico. She and her father are now struggling to establish a viable existence in Texas. He has been shunned by the Mennonite community for putting rubber tires on his tractor. (Too modern, too worldly, too much of a temptation to get out there on the highway and drive to the corrupt world.) The way that this girl enters into the story of Harlan and Troy offers an amazing plot twist that I wouldn’t dare reveal here. The incident where the three of them encounter each other makes one of the most amazing scenes I’ve read in recent years. If you could find actors good enough, it would be fantastic on screen.

A few examples of the fine writing in the book:

  • Troy is prowling around the old family house, having sneaked in, uninvited by its new owner: "And it occurred to him that in some deeply buried way a child’s fear of ghosts might just be a substitute for the fear that there isn’t anything else out there, larger, unseen, good or evil – that what we see is all there is."
  • "With each footfall grasshoppers arced out around his boots like splashing water."
  • "Like a lot of Mexican police in the area, the three seemed less like officers than like regular people who had shown up out of curiosity to see what the actual police were doing."
  • "A look of disgust spread over Harlan’s face, then one of stupefied denial – not at the facts, which were too plain to dispute, but at how rapidly everything he had once thought about his life was becoming untrue."
  • About an old man Troy sees in a caf: "... the man stared back at him with a baleful glare, the way old people who have lost their minds sometimes do, a face that said: You probably know who I am but I don’t anymore, and that’s not fair."

I have just one small problem with the book. Through the entire novel, we’re following either Troy and Harlan or the Mennonite girl. At one point, though, we’re hearing two other men talking together at night. One of them is boasting about an attempted rape. The Mennonite girl is nearby but there is no indication that she is over-hearing them. As far as we can tell, we’re getting a completely private look at these two men whom we haven’t been following in this way at any point in the book. I find this sudden shift disconcerting but maybe I’m old-fashioned in my expectations about consistency in point of view. Maybe most readers today aren’t bothered about such matters.

At times, the book falls into story-telling that doesn’t have much to do with the main plot. Perhaps this is meant to flesh out the culture of the times, a throwback to the days when people had more time for spinning tales. The ones told here, in any case, are engaging. And, slow-moving as the book can seem at times, author Kennedy does ratchet up suspense to a considerable degree in some situations, so much so that it shouldn’t come as too much of a shock when it turns out that he’s holding a card up his sleeve to stun us in the last few pages.

 

History of Violence (Novel) by douard Louis, 2016; translation by Lorin Stein 2018.

This is another of those cases where you’re well into a book before you realize what you’re reading.

On first glance, it’s a story about a young man who picked up another man on the streets of Paris on Christmas Eve. What followed was a love-making session that turned into violent rape and attempted murder. No need for a spoiler alert here because that’s all the book is about, from the first page; the narration circles around and around that event. In that sense, the word ‘history’ in the title is meant, not so much in terms of tracing a societal movement or events from the past up to the present, but more as a ‘story’ that someone keeps mulling over. In other words, ‘history’ as ‘his story.’

As to the identity of the first-person narrator, I began to notice certain odd coincidences part way into the text. The narrator mentions having written a first novel entitled (in English) The End of Eddy. Didn’t the jacket blurb say that this was the title of this author’s first novel? At another point, the narrator tells us that a medical person whom he consulted after the attack commented on the oddness of his surname: Bellegeule. Wasn’t that the author’s surname before he changed it to Louis? And don’t the narrator’s descriptions of himself sound a lot like the picture of the author on the jacket cover?

Time for me to read the description of the book on the jacket flap. (Something I never do before reading a book, for fear that it will reveal too much.) Ah, yes, the book is described as a "non-fiction novel" with "its victim as both protagonist and narrator." Autobiographical fiction, then. So this horrific incident is something that actually happened to douard Louis (previously known as Eddy Bellegeule).

That clarification doesn’t mean that the reading is straight forward or conventional. In a manner that I suppose is typical of trauma victims, the narrator spills out his story in scattered bursts without much concern for chronology or coherence. We know, almost from the beginning, what happened, but it takes nearly until the end of the book to find out, with any clarity, just how it happened. The very first sentence in the book shows us that the prose will be somewhat scattered:

I am hidden on the other side of the door, I listen, and she says that several hours after what the copy of the report I keep twice-folded in my drawer calls the attempted homicide, and which I call the same thing for lack of a better word, since no other term is more appropriate for what happened, which means I always have the anxious nagging feeling that my story, whether told by me or whomever else, begins with a falsehood, I left my apartment and went downstairs.

At first, the weird, off-the-wall style of the narration might strike a reader as the experimental effort of a hot-headed young writer who is trying to make a splash. (Monsieur Louis was twenty-four when the original French version of the book was published.) However, it gradually dawned on me that the book is, as much as anything else, a study of how narration works. Much of the time – as in that opening sentence – the narrator is listening to his sister as she describes to her husband what happened to douard. It adds a lot to the story when we read his corrections (in italics) of what she’s saying. We see, then, how a story can change with the telling.

An example of the somewhat contradictory, conversational style of the narrative occurs when the sister is talking about the time her brother and some pals stole some video games: "They were leaping around over a game they would never even play, except in their case they were so stupid and immature that they actually did play those games, they’d spend all day in front of the TV doing exactly that." In another example of how complicated communication can be, the sister spends about half a page re-hashing a dispute in which the attacker kept accusing douard of saying something he didn’t say and douard kept trying to explain that he didn’t say it: "I imagine," says the sister, "it was the kind of voice you use with your kid when you’re telling him some thing for the millionth time and he keeps on asking the same question, the way kids do..."

Quite apart from the riveting quality of the main event as told, Monsieur Louis shows himself to be a writer with a gift for striking metaphors and an ability to spot many of the foibles of his fellow human beings:

  • before the love-making turned violent: "...I liked the sound of his breathing. I wanted to take his breath in my fingers and spread it all over my face."
  • "I did become aware of what was actually going on, and yet the feeling of unreality persisted, and even afterward, even just three seconds after it ended, the memory was drained of all its reality the way you blow an egg through a hole pierced in the end..."
  • His sister commenting on the way people say "interesting" when you tell them something about yourself: "Everything’s ‘interesting,’ but if they’re so interested how come there’s never a follow-up question? Funny, right? What they mean is, they’ve heard enough."
  • Imagining his funeral – had the murder been accomplished – and burial in the provincial village that was his family’s home, douard pictures his Paris friends arriving with big bouqets of flowers to put on his grave and how the locals will stare at them – "looking like clowns in their overcoats, with their little round glasses." But maybe some of the women, guessing that these flowers are for a funeral, will be more touched because women "were brought up to be more compassionate, and have learned to empathize more easily, and are more intelligent."

The many psychological implications of the attack loom large in douard’s story. At one point, he lapses into speaking of himself in the third person as a way of showing how disoriented he is. One of the most intriguing observations is that he’d always thought that he would be the kind of person who would escape any such situation; he’d thought his fear would energize him sufficiently for whatever evasive action was necessary. What he found, though, was that evasion becomes impossible, "as if the first act of violence in this situation was to preclude the idea of an outside," i.e. to lock a person "inside the limits of the situation itself." The problem, he finds, is "to have been held within the frame of the interaction, within the scene imposed by the situation..."

Following the attack, there's the fear of going back to sleep in his apartment where it happened, the fear of infection, the fear of running into the attacker in the street. He scrubs his apartment frantically to try to get ride of every trace of the attacker; he airs it out to expel every morsel of the attacker’s breath. Gradually, it hits us: these are no doubt the very same feelings that any woman would feel after a rape! The fact that they’re being experienced by a man makes this book singular, it would seem to me. It would be sexist to say that the book makes the horror of rape all the more vivid, given that the victim is male. However, I do think the unusual perspective on the subject does give us a wider grasp of the extent of the crime.

An afterword, an except from Imre Kertsz’s Kaddish for an Unborn Child, sums up douard’s approach to writing about this appalling incident:

It turned out that writing about life amounts to thinking about life, and thinking about life amounts to casting doubt on life, but only one who is suffocated by his very lifeblood, or in whom it somehow circulates unnaturally, casts doubt on that lifeblood .... [my elipsis] ... it turned out that by writing I am seeking pain, the most acute possible, well-nigh intolerable pain, most likely because pain is truth, and as to what constitutes truth, I wrote, the answer is so simple: truth is what consumes you, I wrote.

 

Who Killed My Father (Biography) by douard Louis, 2018; English translation by Lorin Stein, 2019

It’s hard to nail the exact genre of this next book by douard Louis. Given that it mixes details about the author’s life and about his father’s and that it includes reflections on the relationship between them, you could say it’s either a biography or a memoir. But I’ll go with biography because it gives a more complete overview of the father’s life than of the son’s. But is it a book? In some respects, yes: hard cover, attractive jacket, etc. However, it’s a mere eighty-seven pages. Books of poetry are often that short, but prose? Maybe it could be considered an extended essay.

The picture emerges early on that the relationship between son and father was troubled, to say the least. The father expressed a lot of contempt for what he took to be the son’s faggy personality. The son left their impoverished, provincial home early and fled to Paris where he took on the life of the gay man immersed in the arts world. For a long time, he had virtually no contact with his father. When douard began to become famous for his writing, the dad contacted him and asked to see him. A sort of reconciliation ensued.

What propelled the writing of this work was douard’s shock at the diminished state of his father. The dad had suffered a bad back injury at the factory where he worked and he had never recovered properly. As a result, his health was precarious. douard pulls no punches when it comes to answering the question posed by the book’s title. It’s the people who cut back on health care, on unemployment insurance and welfare: Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy, Franois Hollande, Emmanual Macron (and their henchmen). He names them because "there are murderers who are never named for their murders. There are murderers who avoid disgrace thanks to their anonymity or to oblivion." He doesn’t want that to happen to these guys. Their cuts to social services (while giving tax breaks to the rich, in the case of Macron) forced douard’s dad to take jobs like sweeping streets in a village twenty-five miles from his home. Barely able to stand, he had to bend over a broom to earn his subsistence living.

Mixed in with the main theme of the father/son relationship, we get douard Louis’ insights into human nature and society. About his dad’s truncated education, for instance, he says that the cult of masculinity required a "real man" to get out of school as soon as possible, to show that he was a rebel.

For you, constructing a masculine body meant resisting the school system. It meant not submitting to orders, to Order. It even meant standing up to school and the authority it embodied.

M. Louis’ psychological smarts come to play in his telling his father "because you felt that you hadn’t lived your youth to the fullest, you spent your whole life trying to be young. That’s the trouble with stolen things, like you with your youth: we can never quite believe they are really ours, and so we have to keep stealing them forever."

One year, the school subsidy to poor families was increased by nearly one hundred euros, a bonanza that prompted the dad to pack the family into the car for a trip to the beach. This kind of jubilation could only happen in the context of poverty, the writer notes. People who have everything have no reason to celebrate a political decision because politics changes almost nothing for them. "For the ruling class, in general, politics is a question of aesthetics: a way of seeing themselves, of seeing the world, of constructing a personality. For us it was life or death."

As in History of Violence, douard Louis’ writing is impassioned, fervent, spontaneous. Memories and impressions tumble out with no apparent thought for chronological or thematic order (although dates given at the outset of many scenes do help). It’s all a great big jumble, which I suppose could be said of anybody’s memories of family if we examined them in full. And yet, there may be a subtle artistry at work. For instance, the final paragraph – a discussion between the dad and son on the subject of politics, of all things – tugs at the heartstrings in an unexpected way.

 

Solitude (Social Studies) by Michael Harris, 2017

Here’s the situation as Michael Harris sees it:

We humans evolved as social animals. For much of our pre-humanoid history, we expressed our sociability by grooming each other. (Some primates still spend up to 20 percent of the day doing it.) But along came a new skill that changed everything: SPEECH! Now we could express our support for one another through words. And then came writing, which enabled us to reach out to others who weren’t even present. Come the 20th century and its inventions, we could even communicate by voice with people far away. Then, lo and behold, comes the 21st century with its gizmos that allow us to contact – by voice and by writing – people who are anywhere at any time. What a tremendous opportunity for supporting one another!

Only problem: the social aspect of our lives has become so all-consuming and obsessive that we’re losing the solitude that’s also an important aspect of our humanness. The arrival of programs like Twitter, says Mr. Harris, means that we "have developed a system of micro love letters for the twenty-first century whereby we groom each other with the unending expectations of being groomed back – and groomed back right now."

Some of the stats Mr. Harris provides to give us an overview of the situation:

  • in 2009, 18 percent of humans were on line; that number jumped to 41 percent in 2014
  • in 2013, 80 percent of US smartphone users were on their phones within 15 minutes of waking up; this applies to 89 percent of 18 - 24 year-olds, most of whom reach for the phone immediately on waking up
  • a poll of smartphone users found that they spend an average of 132 minutes/day on their phones, but only 16 percent of that time is spent on phone calls
  • most of his friends of his age, says Mr. Harris, have never spent more than 24 hours alone; younger friends have never spent more than 12 hours alone (including 8 hours of sleep)

About his own use of social media, Mr. Harris says his contact with friends and family has become "an ambient, nervous, and constant awareness of each other. We take up this impoverished plenitude because it’s easier and more comforting than the rich scarcity we left behind." On delving into his research on the subject, he says, "I began to remember a calm separateness, a sureness I once could live inside for an easy hour at a time. I couldn’t wait to meet myself again."

Mr. Harris begins to see that, for every hour spent in the crowd, he needs to spend some time alone. "It’s such a sensible proposition. But I realized I never experimented with this ratio in a significant way. Had never figured out what balance of solitude and company I loved best." Someone who had come to a similar conclusion was Canada’s great pianist, Glenn Gould. "I’ve always had a sort of intuition that for every hour you spend with other human beings you need X number of hours alone," said Mr. Gould. "Now, what that X represents I don’t really know; it might be two and seven-eighths or seven and two-eighths, but it’s a substantial ratio."

The scary thing about social media is the way our thoughts are – unwittingly – being manipulated. Scrolling through smiley faces and wineglass icons, Mr. Harris says: "...we seldom stop to wonder whether our solitary voices have been squashed by the predetermined flashcards of sentiment we’re encouraged to hold up in their place." We think we’re rating our own choices and beliefs against the massive collective, while "marketers persistently assure us that the next technology will promote our personal style again, that the next technology will allow us to become truly independent thinkers." By trying to wean himself off this kind of influence, Mr. Harris found that "the less I looked to the reactions of others, the more I interrogated the modes of expression that I had thought were ‘natural’ to me. My online posts weren’t my ‘voice’at all; they were learned responses to the positive feedback of others."

One of the most telling – and devastating – comments on this form of "group think" comes in Mr. Harris’ quote from Doris Lessing’s Prisons We Choose to Live Inside:

People living in the West ... will all emerge with an idea about themselves that goes something like this ... My mind is my own, my opinions are chosen by me, I am free to do as I will ... People in the West therefore may go through their entire lives never thinking to analyze this very flattering picture, and as a result are helpless against all kinds of pressures on them to conform in many kinds of ways.

Letting computers make choices for you – about things like movies, books and the temperature of your house – can have insidious results."If you believe a piece of technology can have a belief, then it’s only a tiny step before you start to believe its belief is more important than your own," says Mr. Harris. "We’ve all acquiesced at some point to the ‘you’d like this’ suggestion of an algorithm."

And don’t be fooled into thinking there’s anything altruistic about those suggestions. Google maps, for instance, are monetized, in that they show the shops that Google thinks you’ll be interested in, given your searches in the past. Media critic Evgeny Morozov has noted that, as long as advertising remains the mainstay of Google’s profits, they’re not likely to be interested in our discovering things that cannot be monetized. Mr. Harris says that’s why companies like Google and Facebook "will not happily allow you to go through your life without a preserving trace of your movements and actions and thoughts." In effect, platform technologies profit from dismantling our mental resources. "We have learned to harvest the solitude of others. Profiteers produce social grooming technologies, and agents of distraction swarm around us."

On the other hand, there are the enriching effects of reading. By setting aside the ego, reading immerses us in the life and thoughts of another character, helps us to develop empathy. "But," says Mr. Harris, "those gifts can be received only when I quiet myself, calm my otherwise feverish ego." Can reading on your smart phone do the trick? Maybe not. Studies have shown that reading on digital platforms tends to focus on concrete details and to diminish the ability to draw inferences and think abstractly.

And yet – somewhat to my horror – Mr. Harris goes on to give glowing reports of new trends for reading online that involve socializing. Some teachers are offering literature studies that invite readers to make comments in the margins of the online text, so to speak, and to compare comments with each other. Presumably, this could be the Brave New World of literature. Sounds like torture to this die-hard solitary reader.

In his final chapter, though, Mr. Harris re-asserts the importance of solitude. Describing a week that he spent alone on Pender Island, he thinks of Thoreau (who, in the passage below, was writing in the 3rd person):

A voice said to him – Why do you stay here and live this mean moiling life, when a glorious existence is possible for you? ... All that he could think of was to practice some new austerity, to let his mind descend into his body and redeem it.

The mention of Thoreau, however, made me feel that there was something missing from Mr. Harris’ week on the island. He gives us the smell of the cabin (musty), the mossy rocks, an encounter with a deer, staring at the waves – but you don’t really feel that you’re there; you don’t sink into it, you don’t get the stillness of the solitude, the deepness of it; Mr. Harris’s mind seems too active still, too cerebral, constantly mulling over research. Even alone on the island, he sounds like a young intellectual who can’t stop comparing his thoughts with other people’s. Within two pages, he refers to: Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook); Susan Wojcicki (YouTube); Susan Blackmore (memeticist); W. Tecumseh Fitch (cognitive biologist) and H.G. Wells (author). Maybe a little Zen meditation would have helped to dispell all those voices, leaving Mr. Harris truly alone.

Still, the week on the island seemed to have some profound effect on him. On arrival home, he’s stumped when his partner asks what it was like:

After such a long stretch of self-containment, with my mind fashioning its own unchecked meaning, the duty of communication feels like a deep puzzle. I haven’t thought up a way to describe my solitude yet, to make it sensible to others.

Quite!

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