The Walrus Blog

Monthly Archive: November 2009

The Numb Diary: Black Friday Edition

November 27, 10:10 AM. As I race down the halls of the Toronto Eaton Centre, I expect blood. I expect a line in front of the Apple Store — one of several retailers trying to import America’s Black Friday shopping tradition to Canada — that snakes down the length of the mall. I expect this one-day megasale will have people climbing over their own grandmothers for the chance to buy a discounted Macbook or iPod Touch. It will be a classic affirmation of everything right and true and decent in the capitalist character; it will be a gross physical salute to the fantastic possibilities of life with high technology.

But I am mistaken. This is the emptiest I have ever seen the store. No confusion, no pushing — at least not yet. Why could this be? Is it a credit to the Canadian work ethic that we’re unwilling to take time off work to shop? Is it the unseasonably warm weather? Is it just too early to think about Christmas shopping? Stay tuned. For now, I need coffee and a new copy of Fear and Loathing. Thank God there’s a Starbucks in Indigo.

11:00 AM. The clerk approachs me cautiously: “Perhaps this is the call you’ve been waiting for all this time, sir.” I say nothing when he hands me the pink telephone, merely listen. Then I hang up and turn to face my attorney. “That was headquarters. They want me to return to the Apple Store and make contact with the Geniuses. They’ll have all the details.”

12:00 PM. High noon near the Genius Bar, crowd thickening like the knot of a noose. There is no way to explain the terror I feel as I lunge up to the red-shirted attendant and begin babbling. My well-rehearsed lines fall apart under her stony glare. “Hi there, my name is… ah, Bob Duke… yes, on the list, that’s for sure. Free lunch, total coverage… why not? I have my attorney with me. I realize his name is, of course, not on the list, but we must have our free MacBook Pro. Yes, just check the list and you’ll see.”

The Genius never blinks. “We don’t have your name here, sir. We’re pretty busy today. If you like, you can book an appointment with us and we can help you with whatever you’re looking for…”

An appointment? At a retail store? “No!” I shout. “Why? I haven’t done anything yet.” My legs feel rubbery. I sag toward her as she produces a list of sale prices. She holds out the pamphlet, but I refuse to accept it. The woman’s face is changing: swelling, pulsing… horrible green jowls and fangs jutting out, the face of a moray eel! Deadly poison! I lunge backward into my attorney, who grips my arm as he reachs out for the paperwork. “I’ll handle this,” he growls. “Prepare the appointment at once. We’ll be at the bar…”

“But sirs, we don’t serve alcohol in the Apple Store.”

What the hell is this world coming to?

12:20 PM. My attorney and I find two stools by the Genius Bar. We order Cuba libres, but nobody seems to notice or care. I can’t concentrate, terrible things are happening all around me. A huge reptile holding an iPhone is gnawing at a man’s neck. The slate tiles are becoming slick with blood — impossible to walk on, no footing at all. “Order some golf shoes. Otherwise we’ll never get out alive,” I whisper. “You’ll notice these lizards have no trouble moving around this muck — that’s because they have claws on their feet. And somebody’s giving consumer electronics to these things!”

1:00 PM. My attorney is displeased. “They’ll never let us back in that place — not after your scene at the Genius Bar.”

“What scene?”

“You bastard, I left you alone for three minutes! You scared the shit out of those people! Waving that goddamn marlin spike and yelling about reptiles. You’re lucky I came back in time. You’re lucky I said you were only excited about the low, low prices, and that I’d get you an Orange Julius to calm down.”

And so we venture forth, the Julius but a ruse. We’re out for more blood, a place where people will claw out each other’s eyes for a bargain. A place where people care about nothing more the latest ironic fashions, where moustaches and cheap plastic wayfarers are the way of the land. The last bastion of the 1980s for people too young to remember the fall of the Berlin Wall — American Apparel’s Black Friday rummage sale.

1:40 PM. The horror, the hipsters

4:00 PM. Safely inside Walrus HQ, I can contemplate the terrifying scene I’ve just witnessed. Plaid shirts, hooded sweatshirts, black jackets, leggings (girls), skinny jeans (boys), varied shades of Chuck Taylors — a clone army of hipsters amassed on the downtown streets. My arrival was badly timed, the lineup already winding around one block and then on for two more. The diehards had shown up early and staked out good positions, from which to stare grimly at the newcomers. Things had become ugly, at least according to the armed security men at the front of the line. People were shoving, so anxious to secure $15 hoodies that they’d ignored even the most basic rules of society. “Things are beginning to calm down now,” he said as he patted his gun. Fearful of what was to come, my attorney and I left in search of cheap hamburgers. We never saw what laid beyond the gaping maw of the shop’s front door.

5:15 PM. Apple Store redux. This is more like it. Mayhem. I’ve had to elbow no less than three people to even get near a laptop, and now fear that if I don’t type quickly enough, one of the red-shirted gatekeepers will have me escorted from the premises by the armed gu—

5:18 PM. This is Mr. Duke’s attorney. Black Friday started out slowly, but has come roaring on. Heaven help anyone who’s just venturing out now. Stay home. Be afraid.

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Posted in The Haulout  •  1 Comment

The Turner Effect


Recently, I went to Random House’s Toronto offices to interview Michael Turner about his latest fiction, a study of war and migration called 8×10. The book is made up of a series of short sections, guided by a grid pattern that prefaces each. The title, in the author’s own words, “is derived from a commercial portrait format (the 8×10 glossy) and is related to the structural layout of the book: the lives of eight people — and the lives they come in contact with — told over ten events, each.”

There is a detail about this discussion that should be revealed up front ⎯ I have had a fangirl crush on Turner (Company Town, Hard Core Logo) since he released The Pornographer’s Poem close to a decade ago. This was a fact that I desperately (and poorly) tried to conceal when I was invited to do the interview. In addition to this obvious source of anxiety, Turner did not remove his (rather handsome) overcoat the entire time we spent together on a (rather handsome) leather couch. People leaving their coats on indoors is one of those things that makes me neurotically uncomfortable. My resulting inner monologue was, well,  neurotically uncomfortable. Thankfully, Turner seemed unaware.

At the end of an epic one-hour-and-forty-five minute discussion that covered everything from pro-sex feminism to the tyranny of yoga mat–pushing–big box bookstores, he was generous enough to say that I seemed like a confident, competent, and strong woman. And that I should get more physical exercise to deal with my stress. Honestly? I don’t think the interview did much to curb my crush.

Some people have referred to 8×10 as a puzzle. Do you feel when you’re writing that you’re putting together a puzzle? Are you a collector of sorts?

Composition and form — the form carries a kind of content. The book is a three-dimensional object, it’s suggestive of a certain kind of activity; you prepare yourself when you look at it. You look at a poem and you prepare yourself to fill in things.

I’m interested in how everyone’s touting the book as “experimental.”

Every book is experimental.

Well, it’s interesting to me because I actually found the book really accessible.

Well, thank you. Part of [the reason for] me not using names, places, races, and dates was to create that accessibility.

It’s almost as if the reader is in every piece of the story, because they’re not so distracted by detail. The readability is unbelievable. Were you deliberately against using specific names to create that feeling?

Names stop thought. Once you have a name for something, you can only think in a certain direction. There’s something to be said for holding back on the name. In The Pornographer’s Poem, the narrator was nameless, and to give him a name — what if I had called him Vito?

Names mean different things to different people; they change the whole tone of things. Vito, obviously —

When I say stops thought, I mean it stops abstract thinking, and it’s all about figuration. I want things open. The book is about things that are absent. If you were to go through it and find the squares [on the grid] that are blacked out, you’d find a prize. And no one’s done it.

It’s like an Easter egg.

No one’s done it! And for it to be done would be interesting, because the figure that emerges is the absent signifier. It is the thing that turns the book in a certain sense.

That’s a gem of knowledge to have.

It’s called 8×10. You expect eighty stories, but really there’s only sixty-four. It’s like people want their money back. It sounds disingenuous to say that what the book lacks is that which is not there, but I do think there is something to that. It’s like the white space around a poem, or the Ian Wallace tableau where he had a photo imprinted on a canvas with two monochromatic paint panels…If you’ve read The Pornographer’s Poem you remember the Bullshit Detector: it’s about where you’re coming from, where you’re going, what did you do to get there, and what will you do to get from there. It’s always about the back story.

The stereotypical Canadian narrative is always laid out for us, telling us the feelings we should have. At the end of every piece in 8×10, we’re left with our own feelings as a reader — it’s like you don’t give us enough to give us more. It’s a very generous thing for a writer to do, to trust readers enough to take something unique from the work. That sounds lofty, but it’s an honest reaction to this notion that you’re not going to give it all to us so we can figure it out for ourselves.

Yeah, you can either go with it, or you can be happy with an instance of pattern and recurrence. The portraiture is based on a pattern of behaviours as opposed to a visage, the face.

Do you feel that some readers will look at 8×10 as an experiment or something mathematical, whereas others will perceive it as telling all of our stories? A lot of reviews of the book have been very technical in terms of breaking down its structure, but I tend to be more of a romantic. Did you deliberately write it that way, to allow such varied approaches?

Well, everything I do is deliberate. But there are things that happen serendipitously. Or apart from my knowledge. Or at the expense of my knowledge. Like I said earlier, I’m interested in form, and like Beckett says, “form carries content.”…The toy, the prize in the book, is in the middle of the book, and it’s the middle of the title. The book is an attempt to reorient people but it’s really hard to do, because the narratives are in us. We’re born and we’re raised with them. The master narratives have atomized now. But grand theory and politics and party politics, it’s all breaking up, right? More than ever, I think people need to cling to those old ideas for comfort, so they’re always going to bring those narratives to something new until they can accept a work on its terms. They can go, “I’m having a feeling here. I’m having the feeling that maybe I’m supposed to have.” It’s a sensation, as opposed to something being over and done with. The modern novel is all about ending with suspension. It’s not about ending with —


Closure. You know, therapy is destroying literature. It insists on closure. “I need closure! That man has to have his head cut off in order for me to feel better about my son or daughter being killed. Or that man has to have lethal injection in order for me to feel better. And I have to be there to see it.” We live in a violent, militaristic, vengeful world culture. It’s not just war, it’s pestilence. So if it’s not Afghanistan or Iraq, it’s SARS or H1N1. We’re kept in a state of fear. I’m trying to reflect the times somewhat. To comment on the times. Hence the beheadings.

I’ve always been intrigued by how you write about sexuality. There’s a simultaneous repulsion-attraction thing going on. It’s very arousing, but it’s not the stereotypical “this is a sexy scene.” There’s this filth aspect to the way you write about sex that doesn’t necessarily make it ugly, but it’s definitely not what we think of when we think of sexy.

Theories of desire are all based on attraction-repulsion: we are attracted to that which we are repulsed by. That dialectic. I do believe that pornography operates as a burlesque in the mainstream. There is no mainstream anymore. [Porn] is at times repulsive and repetitive, but it does mirror other things. It mirrors production. It mirrors social relations.

I actually think it’s a style of writing that appeals to women. From a feminist perspective, it’s so much more honest. It’s a more realistic portrayal of the way sex actually happens, instead of a floral or degrading way of presenting it. Your approach sits nicely in the middle: it’s honest, at times gross, but it’s beautiful. I don’t see a lot of literature that’s written that way. Is there anything you’ve read that you can appreciate on that level?

Well. About a year and a half ago I was invited to the Witte de With [Center for Contemporary Art] in Rotterdam to take part in a show called Bodypoliticx, which was about representations of sexuality. They asked me to have a live public discussion with Xaviera Hollander.


And I was like, “Yes.” So I went and read The Happy Hooker, which I’d never read, but I’d read Xaviera!, the sequel, because my mom had it. I can’t open an old paperback now without being reminded of that book. The smell that comes off the old paperback — I mean, I feel it, down here. [Xaviera!] was a book that I would go to late at night. I liked the way that she wrote about sex the way she wrote about shopping, about running a business, about a travel schedule. It was all even. It’s that Dutch matter-of-factness. So I read The Happy Hooker, and after finishing it I thought, this would never be published now. She has sex with a boy. She has sex with a dog. She does S&M…It is a repulsive, repugnant book, but at the same time it is not. She is so honest. She is a very intelligent woman and she lets you know that. You could tell she loves sex, but she loves life, she loves everything she does.

Do you think there’s a sanitizing of our culture now that makes that attitude just not possible? You said a book like that would never be published today.

Well, it would be illegal to publish it. And immoral as well.

You’ve worked in a variety of different media over your life. Is there any experience you enjoyed more than others? Do you think of yourself as a writer? Do you think of yourself as a musician?

As a musician, I was writing songs. It’s always been about writing. It always begins with writing. Breaking it down by genre — “Michael Turner is a novelist”? I hate that. Just writer is fine by me.

Is there something that you haven’t done that you’d really like to do?


Not like horseback riding, or something.

I’ve ridden on horses. [Pause.] No.

No? You’ve done it all?

No, I’m not saying that. I’m not saying I’ve done it all. I think my nature is a little more existential. I just go through life and get surprised.

You’re not very ambitious?

No. If I want to do something I’ll make a point of doing it, but that’s the point. If you ask me, “Do you want to go for lunch?” I’ll tell you, “Sure, let’s go here.” I’m not the kind of person who says, “I don’t know, where do you want to go?” I’ll have an idea. Okay. Okay. The first thing that comes to mind is just travel. Certain places I haven’t been to. I have to go to Shanghai because my father was born there; I’d like to go to South Africa one day. I’ve been everywhere else. But what would I like to do as a writer?

As a writer, yes.

I would probably like to have the kind of time I think I need in order to write poetry.

I read that you’re less interested in the prose novel now.

I’ve never been interested in the novel. I’ve always been at odds with the novel. I can and I can’t understand why it persists. Whatever. I try not to refer to my work by genre. I think Pornographer’s Poem is [considered] a novel only because there was confusion because it was called a poem. 8×10 has been reviewed as a novel, but nowhere on there does it say novel. I made sure of that. We’re calling it fiction. “But they’ll think it’s short stories.” No they won’t! It’s a fiction. I’m a writer, not an author.

What is validating for you?

My favourite thing is when my work is taught.  If my work is added to a course and it’s discussed and I’m asked to come in, I’ll be there in a second. All I ever want to be is engaged in a conversation, and if my books are part of a conversation, that’s great. So when I’m writing, I’m writing my conversations with the literature. All of it. Whatever’s been written…I read what you read. I know what you read. I can tell what you read. And I can tell you about it on its terms. My arrogance is such that I can tell you why I think you like it. Bear in mind that what I do is based in some ways on what you read. And how your narratives are formed. Or reinforced.

All right.

One more thing!


Just to go back to the Xaviera Hollander, Happy Hooker, Pornographer’s Poem: I will say that the narrator of The Pornographer’s Poem was a repressed kid, and I think that’s reflected through certain aspects of the writing. But Xavier Hollander was a literary woman in a time — in the early sixties, when she started to write the book — she was always a liberated woman. Her achievement to me is as significant as what Angela Davis did, or what Gloria Steinem did, or what Betty Friedan did, or Germaine Greer. She’s a pro-sex feminist, despite herself. Actually, what she is is a libertarian, and certainly a libertine, but really she’s a very conservative woman. Much like the most repulsive pornography she does create an effect, through her being in the world.

(Portrait by Judy Radul)

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Posted in Chapter and Verse  •  3 Comments

This World Has 32 Nations


PARIS: And so it was that last Wednesday, at 22h51 local time in Montevideo (UTC-2) and with a toot-toot-TOOOOOOT from the whistle of Swiss referee Massimo Busacca, Uruguay became the thirty-second and final country to qualify for the World Cup Finals, to be held June 11 to July 11, 2010.

In all, 204 nations participated in the continental qualifying tournaments that began way back in August of 2007. Now, after 848 matches and 2337 goals, we find the thirty-one strongest and most deserving footballing nations of the world left standing. And France, of course.

So with 200 days remaining before the opening kick-off of South Africa 2010 — the first-ever edition of the tournament to be staged in Africa — a quick rundown of the Thrilling Thirty-Two:

Main de Dieu

Yes, of course it was a handball that put France through in extra time of their second-leg knockout match against poor, star-crossed Ireland. We all agree on this. Without drawing the whole thing out any further than it already has been, I have three quick things to say about Thierry Henry’s handball, the most famous unpunished handball since Diego Maradona’s “Hand of God” against England in 1986.

1. He didn’t mean to do it. Of course he didn’t. This wasn’t some calculated, devious attempt by Henry to secretly handle the ball twice in the penalty area and hope to get away with it. In slow motion it sure looks deliberate, but at game speed it was a purely instinctual flailing of the arms on a bouncing ball. And it wasn’t cheating, either — handballs occur all the time in football. It’s written into the rules that when you touch the ball with your hand, the whistle blows and the other side gets a free kick. So if anything, this is a failure of officiating. Leave Henry alone.

2. It’s not Thierry Henry’s job to confess to the referee that he handled the ball. Just like it wasn’t Shay Given’s job to walk up to the referee six minutes earlier, when he took down Nicolas Anelka in the box with a clear hand to the boot, and to say, “You know, Mr. Referee, you didn’t whistle it, but I’m certain that my hand hit Anelka’s boot and brought him down, and in all fairness, you should have whistled a penalty against me.” Again, this was a failure of refereeing. Just like this crucial penalty call, for a phantom handball in the box that came after a missed offside call: Ireland vs. Georgia, World Cup qualifying, February 11, 2009. Robbie Keane shouldn’t be celebrating like that. Should he?

3. To judge by the Anglophone media’s reaction to the game, you’d think that the French are rejoicing in this treachery. They’re not. We’re not (note: while I’m living in France, and until Canada qualifies for a World Cup, I’m for Les Bleus). Nobody wanted this match to end this way. Don’t you think that the French know that they’ll be reminded of their “tainted” qualification before every match in South Africa? Do you think it’s a smart move to qualify shadily at the expense of one Anglophone nation when you’re going to play in another Anglophone nation? France instantly becomes the top villain of 2010, thanks to a failure of refereeing. Let the party begin. Ugh.

First Winners, Last Inners

Uruguay, winners of the first World Cup in 1930, were the last team to qualify for this tournament, to be held eighty years after their glorious victory over Argentina in Montevideo. First winners, and last team qualified? A nice round eighty years? That is too coincidental to be an accident. I smell the next Dan Brown blockbuster — someone get that greasy-haired Tom Hanks detective guy on the phone! He’s a detective, right?

The Chilled Envelope Conspiracy

Speaking of those French footballing villains, how excited are we about the inevitable drawing of the United States and North Korea into the same group-stage round on December 4 in Cape Town, when the ping-pong balls are plucked from that funny air-drum by some cute, overdressed young woman?

A couple more geopolitically awkward or just-plain-weird matchups that are too juicy for FIFA to resist rigging the draw:

  • Australia vs. New Zealand (yes, I’m pretty sure this is possible, since they now play in different confederations, Asia and Oceania)
  • South Africa vs. the Netherlands or England (the “choose your own colonialist” matchup)
  • France vs. Algeria or Côte d’Ivoire or Cameroon (you know this one’s happening)
  • Mexico vs. Spain (the “whose Spanish pronunciation is more correct?” matchup)
  • Slovakia vs. Slovenia (the “-AK- versus -EN- mix-up match” to end all mix-up matches — even their flags are so similar that Wikipedia makes sure you’re searching for the right one!)


A quick round of taps for several traditionally participating countries who should have been invited, but accidentally dumped their Save-the-Dates in the trash, thinking it was a bill or something: Ireland (cough, cough!), Croatia, Colombia, Turkey, the Czech Republic, Saudi Arabia (first missed Finals since 1990), Ukraine.

Pre-Match Anthem I’m Most Excited To Hear

This category has been officially supressed for WC2010 after Russia also failed to qualify for the finals. It’s just not a best-anthem tournament without Russia.

First Timers

No first timers in this year’s Finals! Technically, Slovakia are making their first appearance under that banner, but they’re considered to have participated as Czechoslovakia on nine separate occasions. So let’s put our hands together for Korea DPR (that’s the North, to you), absent from the Big Dance since their first and only other appearance, in 1966, when Kim Jong-Il was just a fresh-faced, mischievous young lad of twenty-five. My how the years fly by!

Le Petit Poucet

This is a nickname used in France’s domestic football cup competitions, given to the smallest village or town still active at each stage of the tournament. Plucky Slovenia (pop. 2,049,440) nipped Uruguay (3,361,000) and New Zealand (4,315,800) for the title, although tiny Bahrein (pop. 791,000) almost swiped this prize in a playoff with the Kiwis.

Africa’s Glass Slipper?

A non-European, non-South American team has still never reached the World Cup final. But “home field” advantage has helped several host nations make Cinderella runs to the semi-finals: Sweden in 1958; Chile in 1962; and South Korea in 2002. (England and France’s sole championships were also both won as hosts.)

Is this the year for Africa? Most South Africans concede that their own side, which benefited from an automatic bid but still participated in the qualification tournament and looked terrible in doing so, has no shot of playing the role of the charmed princess.

Will South African fans thus rally behind the five other African teams? The four teams considered the crème of the continental crème all survived qualifying: Cameroon, Nigeria, Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire. And judging by the car horns still blaring up and down the Champs Elysées, six days after qualification, I hear Algeria’s in as well.

With no Canadian side to support, and with being a supporter of Les Bleus completely stigmatized (not to mention my Karim Benzema jersey being completely obsolete while an astrology-obsessed moron like Raymond Domenech somehow still manages to hold on to a job he should have been fired from long ago – blame French labour laws, I suppose), my biggest rooting interest in the tournament has passed to seeing an African team reach the quarterfinals. Any one of the Big Four a legitimate shot, albeit a long one. At this point, my money’s on Didier Drogba and his mates from Côte d’Ivoire, who look the continent’s most complete side. But I’ll take what I can get.

Zürich-based FIFA is already trying to make sure that the African teams don’t sneak up on the traditional favourites by forcing organizers to replace the traditional African turf, an indigenous grass called kikuyu, with more “television friendly” European ryegrass. (I continue to be completely outraged by this move.) But all is not lost. After all, they won’t have thunderstix to simultaneously energize them and deafen opponents, like the South Koreans had in 2002. But they will have these: the vuvuzela, which sounds like “a duck on speed or the wailing of a terribly ill child.”

Let the honking begin! Unless FIFA decides to ban them, too ...

Illustration by Keith Lyons

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The Sportsman’s View of India


Billboard for Indian Pro League football, sponsored by that most delicious and thirst-quenching of football accoutrements, Kingfisher

MUMBAI: They say that you have one year after a wedding to send a gift to the happy couple. In the case of an Indian wedding, held over the course of five days in Goa and Mumbai, tradition dictates that the Sportstrotter has one month after the holiday to post photos of the sporting life in India.

Thanks and best wishes to Anamitra and Preeti for providing a fabulous excuse to spend two weeks traveling around a country where cricket is king and there’s always a Champions League Twenty20 match on somewhere, at least in the month of October. (Congratulations to the New South Wales Blues, winners of the inaugural edition of this fantastic tournament, which features the catchiest anthem in all of sports.)


A cricket match on the banks of the Kerala backwaters. Note the cow defending at mid-wicket


An improvised badminton match at dawn outside of the Taj Mahal, in Agra


Another sports/beverage combination advertisement in Goa, this time marrying cricket and energy drinks


A cricket match on the pitch-and-putt golf course of the wedding resort in Goa. Note the groom defending at wicket keeper


Students wrapping up after a field hockey practice on a school pitch in downtown Mumbai, thirty floors below the rooftop patio of the ITC Grand Central Hotel

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The Unread Book


He whose desire turns away from outer things, reaches the place of the soul. If he does not find the soul, the horror of emptiness will overcome him, and fear will drive him with a whip lashing time and again in a desperate endeavor and a blind desire for the hollow things in the world.
— From the first chapter of Carl Jung’s The Red Book

I am sitting in an office sparsely adorned with Aboriginal artwork, facing a middle-aged, white-haired gentleman: well-dressed, cross-legged, with a slight, soothing English accent. Here, I feel likely to spill about my neuroses, fears, and dreams. Instead, I discuss Carl Jung’s The Red Book with Robert Gardner, Jungian analyst and president of the C.G. Jung Foundation of Ontario.

The Red Book is the germination of Jung’s avant-garde theories about the unconscious, the basis for the famed Jungian method. The manuscript, a product of sixteen years of work, is replete with the Swiss psychiatrist’s own images from dreams and mythologies, alongside his interpretations of and reflections on such matters. Jung wrote and illustrated it between 1914 and 1930, but it is only now accessible to the public. The Red Book is on display at The Rubin Museum of Art in New York City until January 25. It’s also available in print, though mostly back ordered due to unforeseen popularity: only 5,000 copies were printed for its first edition (which retails for $153 on, a publishing miscalculation that anticipated slim readership in a recessionary market.

Carl Jung spent many years collaborating with Sigmund Freud before their paths diverged. Both are known for significant contributions to the field of analytical psychology and for their influence on the arts, humanities, films, and popular culture. They popularized the notion that one’s inner life merits examination, but it was Jung who turned psychotherapy away from the treatment of the sick to a focus on individuality. He is best known for his theories on the psyche and descriptions of universal, primordial images, known as archetypes of the collective unconscious. Jung was fascinated by how civilizations sealed off from one another share symbols and mythologies, and concluded that in order to change collective perspective we need to understand the soul of the individual. His insights on personality types are integrated today in the Myers-Briggs personality test, which classifies people within four dichotomies, notably extroversion versus introversion.

After separating from Freud and in the lead up to World War I, Jung faced a period of great depression and introspection. What emerged is considered the most influential unpublished work in the history of modern psychology — a beautiful, illustrated personal diary that documented his dreams and fantasies. The Red Book is colourful and intricate, with paintings of mandalas, reptiles, serpents, and Greek deities. It is undeniably important from a historical perspective, showing the preliminary ideas and concepts of one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century. Yet for many years it remained locked in the Jung family home, and in a bank vault in Zurich. Carl Jung left no specific instructions regarding what to do about the manuscript when he passed in 1961. His family, respecting his uncertainty and fear of disrepute among his science-oriented colleagues, kept it mum for decades.

The tug of war for control of The Red Book pitted Jung’s descendents against Stephen Martin and Sonu Shamdasani, co-founders of the Philemon Foundation, which dedicates itself to preparing Jung’s unpublished works for wide release. The family finally conceded in 1997, after the passing of Jung’s son Franz, who had vehemently opposed the intrusion into his father’s personal life, and the publication of two critical books about Jung (Aryan Christ: The Secret Life of Carl Jung and The Jung Cult: Origins of a Charismatic Movement) by prominent U.S. psychologist Richard Noll. From that point, it took another dozen years for The Red Book to reach retail shelves.

Searching for The Red Book at a Toronto Indigo store this weekend, however, elicited blank stares and the following response from a sales associate: “No, we don’t have it. Has he written anything else?” I was tempted to reply with a quote from the text — “The spirit of the depths forced me to speak to my soul, to call upon her as a living and self-existing being. I had to become aware that I had lost my soul” — but decided to move on.

When I turned to the Jungian community to decipher the significance of this work, I found a divided group and a publication engulfed in controversy. “The disquiet of it, and my own reluctance of getting into it, is that it’s a man’s story of his life when he was struggling and disoriented. It’s very personal. I feel [the publication is] a bit voyeuristic,” says Gardner. But I suspect there is something more to it than that: Jungians fret about the misunderstanding of their teacher’s theories — and, by extension, their profession as well. They maintain that The Red Book alone cannot produce an understanding of Jung’s work, which instead requires devoted academic study of his ideas about religion, mythology, folklore, and psychopathology. It all seems rather esoteric, but Gardner assures me that Jungian therapy and analysis is very practical and relevant today — the goal being to rediscover oneself, who one was meant to be from the beginning. “By connecting with deeper imagery, one is also connected to the deeper level of our being, but also the deeper levels of our culture of humanity,” he says. “In doing so, one becomes much less alienated, which to me, is really the biggest problem of the day.”

Another concern put forward by the Jungian community is that Jung’s critics may use The Red Book as proof that he was psychotic — and his work, therefore, the ravings of a lunatic. On its own, the book certainly lends itself to misinterpretation for being overwhelming and seemingly new age. The Rubin Museum, however, has provided a strong context, distilling the breadth of its contents into a few prevalent themes. In Canada, in the hands of Penguin Group (published by W.W. Norton & Company), nothing has been done to bolster the launch: there is neither context nor publicity for The Red Book’s release. (At this time, Penguin Group has not responded to questions about its sales and promotion strategy for The Red Book.)

Today, the field of psychology is moving toward a science orientation with brain imagery and controlled experimentation. Personality psychology and social psychology are still taught at top institutions like McGill University, but are falling in favour. In that way The Red Book appears to have missed its moment of peak relevance by several decades. Yet, whether we choose to admit it or not, the quest for one’s soul is everlasting and ubiquitous. Here is a book about humanity’s personal journey, brimming with lessons and insight about our collective unconscious. But few people, it seems, have clued into this. Perhaps this is because the book has been under-promoted, or its price is too expensive, or its ideas are too challenging to decipher. Fortunately, the answer to that question won’t take decades to reveal itself: in several weeks, 10,000 copies of The Red Book’s second edition will become available to the public. After this much time, the extra wait seems well worth enduring.

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Low Times

marijuanabudRiding a horse is more dangerous than taking ecstasy. I’m serious. Though this fact runs contrary to the D.A.R.E. mindset that has been instilled in the popular consciousness since the 1960s, the numbers prove that there is greater risk involved in saddling up a gelding than popping an E. In late October, this assertion, along with the statement that alcohol and tobacco are far more dangerous that marijuana, prompted the firing of former U.K. drug czar David Nutt. The distinguished professor of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College, London backed up his controversial claims with hard evidence. Nonetheless, he was dismissed from his position as chair of the British Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), ostensibly for disagreeing with the Labour government’s policy on drugs.

I am not here to argue for the legalization or decriminalization of any illicit substances, although I am of the opinion that it is time for all governments to make a serious reassessment of their drug policies. I am here to argue that government-employed scientists must be free from the fear of losing their jobs based on scientific assertions. Nutt was in a unique position to comment on the relative dangers of drugs that are now illegal, which is the reason he was picked to chair the ACMD in the first place. Basically, he was fired for doing his job.

British drug law is guided by the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, a parliamentary resolution that states that drugs should be classified and controlled according to the harm or potential harm that they cause to society. In 2008, the combined deaths in England and Wales attributed to marijuana and ecstasy use totalled 63, yet those drugs are among the most highly controlled substances in the country. In the same year, deaths from illnesses related to alcohol and tobacco use numbered in the hundreds of thousands, yet those drugs are legal.

This past January, the British government decided to label marijuana as a Class B drug, which is the second-highest category for controlled substances and includes more dangerous substances such as barbiturates and amphetamine. This decision ran contrary to the advice of Nutt’s ACMD, which recommended reclassifying marijuana as a Class C (or less harmful) drug. It was this decision that prompted Nutt to make his controversial statements. In a July lecture to the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies at King’s College, London, which was subsequently published as a pamphlet in October, Nutt responded to the government’s decision. Using the logic established by the Misuse of Drugs Act, Nutt argued that marijuana and ecstasy should be ranked low on the list of controlled substances, while many legal activities such as smoking tobacco, drinking alcohol, and even riding horses could and should be placed higher on the list.

The issue here is not any person’s or government’s feelings about the abuse of illegal drugs; what is at issue is the independence of scientists and their freedom to express their findings in public. On his own list of harmful drugs, Nutt placed alcohol at number five, behind heroin, cocaine, barbiturates, and street methadone; marijuana ranked number eleven, and ecstasy was way down at number eighteen. Nutt’s list was not based on his feelings about recreational drug use, nor was it a prima facie argument for legalization. Rather, the professor’s findings were based on hard evidence and guided by the spirit of British law. The fact that he was fired for doing this sets a dangerous precedent for all scientists employed in an advisory role for any government around the world — i.e., tailor scientific advice to the established policy, or else.

Personally, I believe that drugs pose a greater threat to society at large because they are illegal. The illegality of drugs breeds the underground economy of the drug trade, and the violence that goes with it: it’s not marijuana that’s causing the problem, it’s the people who control its supply. Government legalization and regulation of drugs that are currently illegal could reap untold tax revenues for governments as well as vastly decrease the risks involved in taking drugs. But in order to do this, governments will need the advice of independent scientists who hold no personal, political, or financial interest in their findings. The firing of David Nutt represents the top of a slippery slope that leads to a place where scientists only report what governments want to hear, rather than the truth. I, for one, do not want to live in a world where that is the case.

(Photo by Erik Fenderson)

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Chegg It Oot


You may have noticed, decorating the pages of the December issue of The Walrus, a series of little drawings called “Schematic Diagrams for Proposed Objects.” These colourful chunks were chipped away from the alternate reality that Canadian artist Marc Bell has been building for the past decade and more: a populous, overwhelming place where “everything has feet,” even the least detail demands annotation (“brown sock means I’m working in Quebec”), Philip Guston‘s self-caricature comes into inexplicable conflict with ex-Ontario premier Ernie Eves, and imaginary corporations peddle such necessities as gravy, tarps, stone, and adhesives. It’s a place I’ve written about before, and which Bell’s new book, Hot Potatoe, exhaustively maps out, often aided by cheeky, Nabokovian text pieces. The artist was gracious enough to exchange a few emails with me about his intricately detailed universe.

* * *

trunkatesmallHot Potatoe features drawings, mixed media constructions, comics, watercolour, and other work. What sort of thought processes do each of these forms require? For instance, how do you compose a comics page versus a drawing?

A common thread through all of my work seems to be a stacking of information and imagery, and me trying to arrange it all somehow. But there are specific differences: the mixed media pieces require a lot less planning than how I would go about drawing comics, for example. When I am creating mixed media things, I like to start out with a big mess (scraps, doodles, random bits of paper) and refine it over time. There is a lot of layering and do-overs. Perfect for someone like me who has difficulty with decisions. The downside is that it is sometimes hard to cover up the bits and pieces that I like, but which may not contribute to the overall composition of the thing.

The other side of the coin is comics, which take more planning. I draw those in pencil first. That’s when most of the redoing happens, all the erasing and do-overs…Fans of cartoons often enjoy a pristine comics page that looks effortless. Mine never seem to escape a certain kind of tortured look, however. I push very hard with my pencil and it looks like I might be trying to dig through to the other side of the paper and escape.

The watercoloured drawings are created in much the same way I create a page of comics. But these days I am using nicer paper.

drawingsmallHot Potatoe includes some of your collaborative work with Peter Thompson and others. What role has collaboration played in how you make art?

I don’t work on as much collaboration as I used to, but I think collaboration has really helped me try to use some of the same tactics in creating my own work. Often I am consciously trying to interfere with my own natural way of working in an attempt to create a compelling image — sort of imitating what happens when one draws with another person, trying to get at an unexpected result. Throwing a wrench in the works. Also, my own work has that “piled on” look that some collaborative work has. Figures will have multiple faces/views, a cubist look or something like that.

How does the approach differ when you’re compiling and editing a book like Nog A Dod, which is more about the work of your peers, as opposed to when you’re putting together something like Hot Potatoe, which is all you?

Well, I had more distance from the material used to put together Nog A Dod (since it was by other people), and that was very helpful in order to edit it. Nog A Dod was pretty exciting to put together because the material had been produced originally in small-time, self-published booklets, so I was happy to bring it to a bigger audience. When compiling Hot Potatoe, I became a little tired of the material because it was all “me, me, me,” but I had to remind myself that most of it had only appeared as art on the wall, and most people probably had not seen it before. My general tendency is still to cram a lot of stuff in, and certainly both Nog A Dod and Hot Potatoe are pretty full.

I wonder what you have to say about what attracts you to (1) prog rock, and (2) E.C. Segar. What kind of play, if any, do those influences have in your work?

(1) I loved prog as a teenager—it was my way out of heavy metal (I thought it was smarter), but I don’t know if it was a good way out. I don’t have as much patience for it now, but I have been trying to listen to Van Der Graaf Generator to see what that is all about. My love of prog has been replaced with things like Can and The Fall, which you could certainly link to prog in some ways. Looking at my work now, however, you might be able to see my prog roots in there.

(2) Segar is the opposite of prog, much more groovy and looser. As important as it was to stop listening to the whole five parts of Supper’s Ready by Genesis every day (as great as all of them are), it was also important to look at Segar and things like Betty Boop to see where somebody like [Robert] Crumb came from. Segar is the perfect cartoonist. Vaudeville comics at their finest.


Do you think of the figures in your drawings and constructions as characters in the same way that you do the characters in your comics? Like, is the “Balsam Adhesives” guy someone who could interact on the page with a Petey or a Paul or a Pootie, or is he just a satisfying collection of compositional elements?

I don’t think “Balsam Adhesives” guy could interact with a Petey or a Paul or a Pootie unless he was simplified a bit. It wouldn’t be impossible, but it would take some work to distill him down to his more bare essentials. In “There Is No Escape!”, the story starring Petey, there are illusions and representations of some of the “non-comics” stuff, but it was a challenge to distill some of these things down into comics-land. While my comics are very busy, they do need to have a bit of simplicity to make them “move”. A good example of this would be Basil Wolverton‘s comics versus his crazy, detailed illustrations. You would expect his comics to look as detailed as those stand-alone drawings, but they don’t, and if they did, they wouldn’t “move” like they do.

The paper cup with the “Lime Ricky” logo is conspicuous among your constructions for being, unlike the ones advertising Gravy World or Canadian Aztec, from a restaurant chain that actually exists. Any fond memories of Lime Rickey’s restaurants?

You know, I don’t recall this restaurant. Did the staff dress in green? I bet they did! I was mainly familiar with the soda fountain drink of the same name on the menu of Mel’s Tea Room in Sackville, NB.

I’m curious about your connections to your hometown’s artistic history. Are there any London, Ontario artists whose work you feel a kinship with? I’m wondering in particular about Greg Curnoe’s collages.
I think it was Jason Mclean, another London-born artist, who showed me those Curnoe collages with bus transfers and things. It led us both to using those in our work as a reference point to our hometown. We would glue them to the outside of letters we mailed to each other. Curnoe and co. were very stubborn about being from London and working in London, a real regionalist viewpoint. In much the same way that The Hairy Who and other Chicago artists rejected what was going on in New York at the time they started, Curnoe and co. didn’t feel they should have to go to the big city (Toronto) to get respect. It is a different world now, with this internet and “globalization” or whatever you want to call it, and I don’t know if that point of view could really truly exist anymore. You would have to work really hard to maintain that kind of bubble.

You have lived and worked all across Canada, but a specific sense of place, even if it’s only alluded to, is still present in much of your work. How important is where you’re living to what you’re working on?

I might have done all right as a stubborn London artist, not sure, but I found I had to get out and be stubborn all over the place (ho ho). A good chunk (almost all) of Hot Potatoe was created in Vancouver. I was there for eight years and it was a good place to get a lot done. I appreciate that you get that “sense of place” from the work: I am not sure how it is communicated, but I am happy it is. I don’t know if you have seen Curnoe’s map of North America with the U.S. missing (Canada is joined to Mexico), but I cannot claim the same sort of differences with the United States in my work, as most of my successes are tied to the U.S. My stuff does not have the “message” it seems to take to be understood that well in Canada. I think Canada is very overwhelmed by academia in art, to a point where [the art] will probably change a bit or possibly already has [because of that pressure]. I like to work in opposition to SOMETHING, so it’s okay if this academic “art that is good for you” sticks around a bit longer.


Canadian readers take note: Bell’s book tour touches down in Toronto at Magic Pony on November 20th, and in Montreal on November 27 at Librairie D+Q.

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Posted in Four-Colour Words  •  1 Comment

brucemccall_oct09aThe original artwork by Bruce McCall that graced the October 2009 cover of The Walrus is now available to own as a limited edition print.

Born and raised in Simcoe, Ontario, McCall is best known for his work with The New Yorker, where he has been a regular contributor since 1980. Largely self-taught, his art has adorned a number of magazine covers, including those of The New Yorker and The Walrus. He is also a humourist and satirist; his writing frequently appears in The New Yorker’s “Shouts & Murmurs” section, and he won the Gold Medal for Humour at the 2009 National Magazine Awards for his article “A Liar’s Life” in The Walrus. McCall has published two story collections, an illustrated humour book, a memoir, and an illustrated children’s book. He is represented by the James Goodman Gallery in New York.

Only 24 signed and numbered prints are available of this piece by the world-renowned Canadian illustrator and humourist, so order yours now!

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Solid Golden

annabellyonFew writers can lay claim to the triple crown — the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Governor General’s Award for Fiction, and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize — of CanLit award nominations. M.G. Vassanji pulled it off two years ago with The Assassin’s Song, and Rawi Hage followed suit with last year’s Cockroach. This year, Vancouver writer Annabel Lyon joined their illustrious ranks with The Golden Mean, her first novel for adults. Depicting Aristotle’s tutelage of a young Alexander the Great, The Golden Mean is a gripping, thoughtful dramatization of one of the most intriguing relationships in ancient history. Tonight, Lyon joins the other four writers shortlisted for the Giller in Toronto for the award ceremony. I spoke with her over champagne during the International Festival of Authors.

Before we talk about The Golden Mean, can you tell me about the experience of being nominated for all these awards?

I feel like I’ve been hit by something large. It’s overwhelming, and the days have become very long. It’s a lot of media and it’s a lot of readings. I’m used to being at home in my room and my book being this little personal thing, and all of the sudden it’s just out there. Of course, I’m not complaining at all. It’s wonderful, but it is very overwhelming, and I’m a pretty shy person.

How did the experience of writing a novel compare to writing the shorter fiction you’ve published?

It was really hard. I feel like I’m a short story writer. I always compare it to running: it all depends on what you’ve got the body for, and what you’re wired for. You might be a short-distance runner, or you might be a long-distance runner. I think I’m a short-distance writer. I feel confident when I do that, in control. The novel was a long, hard slog, and it didn’t come naturally at all. There were many points where I thought, “Can I just make this back into a short story?” I wanted to give up. But the story was just too big; it needed the scope of a novel.

Do you plan to write more novels in the future?

I have an idea for a sequel to this one. It was always a two-book project in my mind. I would love to write more short stories and I plan to, but it’s not like I have all these great novel ideas racked up and waiting to go in a production line. It would have to be something pretty compelling to get me to dive back into that again. Did I mention it was hard?

Why write a novel about Aristotle today?

I was a philosophy major as an undergrad. I liked ancient philosophy and ethics, and he’s the towering figure when you put those two together. I always loved to read his work, which I realize is incredibly geeky, which I am. In times of stress I would read Nicomachean Ethics, because it calmed me down. It’s someone trying to think things through in a very steady, calm, orderly way. To give you a trivial example: I would come home from going on a date which was kind of miserable, and I’d feel gross and wasn’t ready for bed right away, and I would start reading Aristotle. No wonder I didn’t get more dates. The period after September 11, not quite so trivially, was a stressful time. I started thinking, as did many people in the arts, “What’s the relevance of what I’m doing? Who needs fiction right now? What am I doing after all?” I started reading Aristotle again, and I was struck by how relevant and how contemporary he is. He’s asking questions like, “What is it to live a good life? What is it to be a good citizen? How do you avoid extremism?” All of which is hugely relevant. I remember reading that tiny little bio that was in the front of [his books] and thinking how I would make that into a novel. I’m a fiction writer, and eventually the fiction brain comes back. It took a long time before I realized I was actually going to write the novel, because I was just doing it as an exercise to see how I would write the novel if I was going to do it. [Finally] I accepted that I was really working on it.

Are there particular lessons you think Aristotle has for us today?

That idea of the golden mean, the avoidance of extremes and trying to find a middle ground. I think that is relevant, for obvious reasons in the world today, and something that will remain relevant, at the personal level and the political level, as long as there are human beings. My bigger project was that I really wanted people to know who Aristotle was and remember what he gave to the culture, because he’s at the foundation of so many things. He was one of the first empirical scientists. He went out and got his hands dirty, where the Greek philosophers before him just sat in chairs and thought things through. He was the father of logic, which led all the way to computer science and gave us the world we have today. He was one of the first people to do dissection on animals, which gave us modern medicine. Then there’s his ethics. And not just western culture, he was a huge influence over medieval Islamic scholars, as well. He’s like a Leonardo DaVinci or a Shakespeare — one of those once-in-a-thousand-years brains. I have little kids and I realized they can go through twelve years of school, they can go to university, they can get PhDs, and never have to learn anything about Aristotle. That felt wrong to me. I just want people to realize that deep down under everything the world is today, he’s there. It’s all built on top of what he did.

How close is your portrayal of Aristotle to what we know about the actual person?

There are works of historical fiction that play a lot more with characters and invent scenes that never really happened. That can be wonderful and really fun to read, but since my goal was to kind of give Aristotle back, I didn’t want to give him back in a warped or twisted way. I wanted to keep it pretty straightforward. Obviously, there’s not a lot that’s known because he lived 2,300 years ago, so I had to extrapolate a lot from his writings. For instance, it’s known that his father was a physician, so I assumed that he would have learned some of his father’s trade. I don’t know that for sure, but it’s a pretty safe assumption.

Can you talk a bit about your decision to portray him as essentially bipolar?

Again, that’s extrapolation from his work. He wrote in a book called Problems about the link between what he called melancholy — but we would call depression — and the creative temperament. It sounds like something he knew intimately and wrote about from experience. Then you look at the sheer amount of work that he produced. It’s a manic mind that could never switch off. He was just insanely curious about everything. Metaphysics, law, politics, theatre, marine biology, astronomy, astrology, the Olympics — you name it and he wrote a book about it. So at the other end there was this kind of frenetic mind that just never seemed to stop. You take those two things and then look in the Ethics where he writes about the golden mean being his ideal. I thought, that doesn’t sound like somebody who’s arrived at that, it sounds like someone who desperately wants that.

What is it about this particular period in Aristotle’s life — when he began tutoring Alexander the Great — that attracted you to write about it?

Those seven years were the most tumultuous of his life. He spent the first twenty years of his adult life in Plato’s Academy as basically a student and then as a teacher. And then he had this period of travels where, after Plato died, he went to Asia Minor, he went to Turkey, and then he lived on the island of Lesbos before being summoned back to his birthplace, Macedonia. He spent seven years there, and during that period Macedonia conquered the rest of the southern city-states. He was away from Athens, which is the center of the world for an intellect like him. Then he tutored the young Alexander, who must have been a force to be reckoned with. After Philip, the king of Macedonia, died, Alexander took the throne and went off on his big campaigns. Aristotle went back to Athens and stayed there for pretty much the rest of his life. Once again he was in a university writing books. Externally and internally, I thought that seven-year period really had the most going on, and it’s also a nice, discreet period for a novelist. It has a beginning, and a middle, and an end. For me, coming to it from short stories, I needed that framework to hang it on.

What was the research process like?

I wrote a very embryonic, complete first draft of about forty pages before I did much research at all, and then went out and did a lot of reading. I came back and realized I’d gotten all this stuff wrong, so I went back and fixed it. It got longer: it was eighty pages, then a hundred pages. I went out and did more research, and then I came back to writing again. The neat thing about something set in ancient times is that there’s a limit to how many primary sources you can read. You can get to the end of it, whereas if you’re writing about Shakespeare you can go on researching forever. So in a way, [The Golden Mean] being set so long ago made the research a little easier. But I didn’t go to Greece. I was having babies at the time that I was writing this and I couldn’t get away from them. More to the point, you can’t go to ancient Greece. Things that I would have wanted to see just weren’t there anymore.

Did working on the novel so long change your relationship to Aristotle’s work?

The more I worked on him, the more he became a frail figure in my mind. He starts out seeming like this monolithic, huge brain. Such a reputation, such influence down the ages; you think he must have been this solid, confident figure. Yet the more I read his work and the more I thought about the character, the less true that seemed. He increasingly became someone who I felt worried for.

Throughout the novel, characters use contemporary vernacular, including profanity. What went into your decision to take that route?

When I started working on it, I found that I was using a very British diction, which was really annoying, because that’s not my diction. My dad’s English, so I sort of have that voice in my head. A lot of historical fiction, especially about the ancient world, is written by Brits. It’s become a convention to have characters speak British diction. I started questioning why I was doing this, and why I couldn’t just use a North American diction. I ended up having the Athenians speak like Brits, because the Athenians are from of an older, more refined culture; they certainly looked down on the Macedonians for being a very young, very wealthy, barbarous society that had to import all its culture. I gave the Macedonians my vernacular, the North American ways of speech. I’ve had reviewers trip on that sometimes and say, “Well, why do they speak this, it sounds anachronistic, it sounds too contemporary, would they really swear like that?” Well, why would they say “bloody hell” like a British person? That doesn’t make any more sense. [Using contemporary vernacular] also seemed a way of saying this isn’t British history that I’m writing, this is Canadian history. We’re a democracy, and where does that come from? We watch Hollywood movies that are in three acts, and who wrote about that first? This is Canadian history, it’s North American history, it’s world history — so why can’t I use my own voice?

Since this is your first novel for adults, I wonder what differences you noticed between writing for adults and children, both in the composition and the reception.

I’ve found children’s writing easier. It’s a more joyous thing to do. I look forward to sitting down at the desk, and it comes very easily. Obviously there are certain things you wouldn’t write about in a children’s book, and the level of language has to be different. I had to learn to do that, and I had a great editor who helped me through it. The Golden Mean was definitely harder, darker. As far as reception goes, I think the real contrast is with publishing short fiction. People often think The Golden Mean is my first book, when I’ve written prior collections. Short fiction really doesn’t count. I’ve spoken to poets about this, and they’re also often asked, “Are you just a poet?” In the same way: “Are you just a short story writer?” It still amazes me that people are buying this book. As a short story writer, I’m used to selling my 400 copies. You sit at the tables waiting to sign, and you watch everybody line up for the novelists. Now people are lining up for me, and I still have that kind of feeling: “Really, you bought that? You bought my book?” I have no experience with this. This is crazy.

(Photo by Phillip Chin)

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Once Moore, With Feeling


Lisa Moore is picking at old wounds. Her latest novel, February, is about the Ocean Ranger — an oil rig whose sinking off the coast of Newfoundland in February 1982 remains a painful blight on the province’s collective memory. February follows the lives of the fictional Helen O’Mara — whose husband is among the eighty-four men killed in a disaster that yielded no survivors — and her four children. Moore explores how loss is played out over nearly thirty years of slip-and-slide between past and present. With February, the author delivers what readers of her two previous collections of short stories and one novel have come to expect of her work: prose that is at once challenging and facile, richly poetic but eminently consumable.

When February came out, one critic accused it of being too Canadian. We’re at a point where “Canadian” is sometimes used as shorthand for literature that is too aesthetic or intellectual.  What are your thoughts on where such “Canadian-ness” fits into our national literature?

I’m from Newfoundland, and that probably comes before being Canadian, or at least gets mixed up in it: they’re two separate identities mixing together. Since becoming a writer, I’ve travelled through Canada a lot to do readings, and that has really informed my idea of what it means to be Canadian — just travelling in the landscape and seeing how different it is and meeting the people. I really don’t believe there is such a thing as a Canadian kind of writing. I think that Canadian literature is as diverse as the country is big, and it gets more and more diverse every day. I read last night with three other writers, and each of the books that we read from was completely different. Of the three books written by Canadians, one is set in Beirut, one is love poetry, and mine is about the sinking of the Ocean Ranger. That’s a literary experience in Canada: if you go to a reading, you hear all of that.

Do Canadian authors tend more toward regionalism, then? Does writing from Newfoundland have a distinct voice?

Newfoundland is difficult to get to, and it has in the past been difficult to make a living there. Mostly people were dependent on fish. Now, of course, the fishery is gone, and we’re reaping the benefits of oil.  Michael Crummey’s [recent book Galore] is about outport living, and my book is about an oil rig that sank. Both involve isolation. An oil rig is an island, too, in a way. So that’s something that we share in common: the literature is informed by geography.

You and Michael Crummey are both belong to the writer’s group The Burning Rock Collective. It seems that in Newfoundland, and St. John’s in particular, the artistic community is tightly knit.  How much does the conversation taking place in that community influence your work?

Michael Winter is a very good friend of mine, and Ramona Dearing, Larry Mathews, Claire Wilkshire, Beth Ryan: these are all people whose work I’ve read and commented on while it was in progress, and they’ve read mine and offered me criticism. That experience makes literature a really living thing. It gives it another layer; it lifts it off the page. St. John’s is also a diverse place artistically. The music scene is very rich, there’s a great visual arts scene, and film is taking off. Everybody knows each other, and everyone is often collaborating.

In February, we get a strong sense of community. The Ocean Ranger sinks, and there’s this experience of communal grief that happens afterward.

When the Ocean Ranger sank in Newfoundland, it was a tremendous shock that just reverberated through the whole province. That disaster is still a raw wound there.

Why do you think that is?

It’s because it never should have happened. Corners were cut, and safety procedures weren’t followed. The men weren’t trained properly; they didn’t have enough survival suits. The lifeboats were not durable; many of them broke apart when they got in the water. Loss of the sort that occurred on the Ocean Ranger is always shocking and difficult to take, but even more so when it’s unnecessary.

It broke my heart to read the Royal Commission on the Ocean Ranger disaster.  I just found it unbearably sad. It outlines the details of all the things that went wrong, many of which could have been avoided. It made me realize that people risk their lives just to make a living on a regular basis.

Do you have any personal connection to the Ocean Ranger disaster?

No, but my own father died very suddenly of natural causes around the same time. My mother and father were madly in love, and I watched my mother go through that grief. My sister and I went thought it as well.

I thought a lot about the idea of trauma when I read February and the idea — I think Hannah Arendt said this, among other people — that it can be worked through with narrative. Was writing February a kind of catharsis?

When I went to research the book there was very little material information available. There was almost nothing written: just the Royal Commission and a few books and documentaries. It was astonishing how little material there was about an event that had left such a mark on Newfoundland.  Then this year another book came out at the same time as my own — a piece of non-fiction by Mike Heffernan called Rig — and a sociologist named Susan Dodd is writing a book about the Ocean Ranger as well. It feels to me like people have come to a point in the process of grieving or working through trauma where it’s becoming possible to tell the story. And also absolutely necessary to tell the story.

I wanted to show that this is not the kind of disaster that just hits the headlines and then goes away. This is the kind of thing that continues to affect people who are left behind for generations. It wasn’t just the loss of those men, as awful as that was, it was also that their families were scarred. In fact, the whole province was. It was important to me to say that with the book.

Despite that, the ending of February is very hopeful.

When someone dies, in order to honour that life you have to live joyfully. Even though the book is about grief in some ways, I wanted there to be joy in it as well. I wanted that to come through in the language, in the way that Helen experiences through her senses. I hope that it’s a sensual book, that the senses of the reader are engaged and come alive. And I wanted Helen to fall in love again. Because I think that is not, in fact, a romantic notion but a realistic notion.

(Photo by Barbara Stoneham)

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ifoaxxx_smallWith such successes as The World According to Garp, A Prayer For Owen Meany, and The Cider House Rules to his name, John Irving is one of the most beloved novelists of our time. Last week he appeared at IFOA XXX to promote his twelfth novel, Last Night in Twisted River. (You can listen to the early part of the event via The Globe and Mail’s podcast.)

At first, Irving spoke about his writing process, which always begins with him figuring out the final sentence of his intended novel. Only then, he explained, can he know where to start. For two decades, Irving struggled to find the closing words of Twisted River. When he had them at last, he was able to craft the book with unprecedented speed. Irving started writing in 2005, and delivered the manuscript to his publisher just over a year ago — a furious pace by his standards.

Irving read the novel’s opening passages, then sat down with CTV host Seamus O’Regan for a fascinating discussion. O’Regan quoted a passage from Twisted River wherein the protagonist, a renowned writer named Daniel Baciagalupo, laments the propensity of readers to search his novels for evidence of autobiography. O’Regan likewise lamented that this put him in the awkward position of recognizing autobiographical elements in Twisted River, but feeling reluctant to explore them. Irving jokingly threw his interviewer a lifeline when he admitted that Kurt Vonnegut, in scenes from the book, repeats the same advice to Danny at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop that he once gave Irving, in reality, at the same institution.

During the audience Q&A session that followed, a high school English teacher asked Irving how he feels about his work being taught in schools. The author confessed to mixed feelings. Many of his favourite books are those that he first read in school, he said, and so he likes that students will be exposed to his work. But there were other books (e.g. Faulkner canon), he continued, that he was made to read when he wasn’t ready for them, and so he hates the idea of students being forced to slog through his novels if they don’t enjoy them. “Teach the books,” Irving instructed his questioner, “but make sure your students know I’m not the one forcing them to read them.”

Later, Irving related an amusing anecdote about Charlton Heston’s arrival at a Planned Parenthood benefit screening of The Cider House Rules, the 1999 film based on his abortion-themed novel. No one would sit with Heston, fearing he was a right-wing zealot, but the writer knew better. “The Planned Parenthood people assumed that because he was a big gun-rights guy, he must be pro-life — when actually, and I’ll bet you didn’t know this, he was as staunchly pro-choice as he was pro-gun. His entire political philosophy was, ‘Don’t you tell me what to do!’”

All in all, a very enjoyable evening with one of America’s most celebrated storytellers.

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