John Elder Robison has Asperger’s. So does his son, Cubby. Robison – who has authored two books on how he turned his “disorder” (read: difference) into a pillar of strength – was determined that his own son would grow up with a positive self-concept and that he never would be forced to forfeit his special traits and curiosities. Robison’s new book, Raising Cubby: A Father and Son's Adventures with Asperger's, Trains, Tractors, and High Explosives, is not just another guidebook for parents of children with special needs. There’s a whole lot of father-son mischief too. And at Saturday’s Writersfest event, there was also a little reminiscing about Robison’s days on the road with KISS and other legendary bands.
Robison’s talk focused mostly on the mischief. Stories about Cubby finding his way into nuclear plants and naval ship control rooms had the audience in stitches – “My son Cubby is a shareholder. He would like a tour, please and thanks.” The story about fixing and flaunting Chairman Mao’s last Mercedes limo was also priceless.
There were discussions aplenty about what must be done to improve life and career outcomes for those on the autism spectrum. There were many parents of autistic children in the audience, and several rose during the question period to thank Robison for giving them hope.
Robison’s main point: like most young people, those ‘on the spectrum’ are seeking a solid education, a rewarding career with the possibility for advancement, and fulfilling relationships. For Robison, this last one – “I went and got me a wife” – is the most important. His tone is characteristic of many people with Asperger’s I have encountered – straightforward without a hint of sarcasm: “getting a girlfriend is more important than getting a job.” The theory is quite simple: become “choose-able” to potential romantic partners. Parents and peers can provide kids like Cubby a great deal of useful practical advice for becoming “choose-able” [and certainly one does not need to be on the spectrum to benefit from social skills coaching!]. Instead of saying, “you’re autistic so it’s expected that you’ll have no friends,” we can say, “try doing X instead of Y, and folks on the playground won’t make fun of you.” It’s about trial and error, and a healthy dose of patience and creativity.
But before all that can happen, society must recognize the value and worth of autistic individuals’ skills and talents. It is interesting to note that parents in the audience asked questions about how to make their kid “choose-able” for [read: successful at conforming to] the job market. Yet, Robison placed primary emphasis on interpersonal relationships and dating. This reminded me of a recent class with Dr. Peggy Kleinplatz at the University of Ottawa, wherein we discussed how too often clinicians fail to consider how one’s condition/difference/delays/disability will impact relationships and sexuality.
More than once did Robison declare, “Being autistic saved me.” How so? At one level, being autistic “protected” him from being affected by abuse and trauma – obliviousness as a coping mechanism. But more importantly, his autism leads him to think differently than others, to solve problems with cognitive patterns unique to him – and all of this boded well for his career as an electronics and music wiz, author, and father. As he put it, “each of us must find what is special about us.” And parents, teachers, youth workers and the like can help in this process by giving autistic kids a range of experiences so they can assess their strengths and interests. This means we need a shift from obsessive pathologizing to a focus on exposing autistic youth to the possibilities that await them.
Whereas today’s youth are ascribed a psychopathological label early on, Robison was diagnosed at age 40. We don’t yet know the effects of living with such a label throughout one’s formative years, but we’re about to find out. As a generation of autistic youth enter early adulthood and seek their first jobs and serious relationships, now is the time for the sort of productive, mature, communal, yet amicable discussion proposed in Raising Cubby. Robison’s talk laid the groundwork for significant progress, and it’s no surprise he has been advising top research institutions and government agencies on better conceptualizing and serving those on the spectrum. I feel privileged to benefit from his lucid recommendations and contagious optimism, as well.
Unsurprisingly, many aspiring time travellers arrived in time to listen to Chris Impey speak on Saturday. Impey was presenting material from his recent book on cosmology, How it Began: A Time Traveler’s Guide to the Universe . I was impressed at the diversity of the audience, all interested in learning more about the origins and nature of the universe. Impey’s presentation was essentially Cosmology 101, informing us of the current scientific understanding of the universe.
Impey divided his presentation into three major sections: the history of cosmology, the Big Bang, and current research and theories on ideas as diverse as String Theory, the Multiverse, and Brane Theory (M-Theory). The presentation was well polished, and the visuals were excellent. Many of his slides used vintage comics to illustrate his talking points, images were shown of the farthest reaches of visible space, and several videos added to his message.
In his presentation on the History of Cosmology, he explained the evolution of humanity’s attempt to answer the two questions on the nature of the universe: does the universe have a physical boundary, and does it have a temporal beginning and ending.
He shared the impact of Isaac Newton, William Herschel, Edwin Hubble, and Albert Einstein on our attempts to answer those two questions. One of his main points shared was that by looking farther out into the universe, we also have the advantage of actually looking back in time. Light that has travelled farther is much older, so if we look at light from a star that’s one million light years away, we’re looking at the universe as it was one million years ago. The most advanced telescopes we have right now are able to look out over 13 billion light-years, so we are able to observe closer and closer to the origins of the universe which is understood to be 13.8 Billion years old. We’re getting closer and closer to actually observing conditions at the beginning of the universe, as much as visible light will ever be able to show anyway.
Impey’s next topic was the Big Bang. It was at this point I started to get lost in the presentation. I understood the surface points he was making--such that the name, “Big Bang” implies an explosion, which is incorrect as there was never an “explosion”. Impey did expand that this theory is scientifically the best understanding we have of the origins of the universe and it has been proven through multiple sources of experimentation.
But, as Impey began to explain how cosmic microwave radiation was evidence of the Big Bang, I started to struggle. By the time Impey was discussing String Theory and the Multiverse, I was completely lost. Perhaps if I had read How it Began before the talk, I would have been able to follow, but it was clear my Engineering education and my love of Star Trek didn’t help me comprehend the remainder of the presentation. This isn’t to say the talk was bad – quite the contrary, Impey is a very talented communicator, there was just too much information being communicated in a short time. Much of the information took me a while to understand, so while I was chewing on one idea, he moved on and left me behind. I felt like I was back in an undergraduate class frantically taking down notes in the hope they would make sense later when I read the textbook.
Those that had read Impey’s work clearly got more out of this presentation than others, as I wasn’t the only one who felt intimidated. I overheard one conversation afterwards, where the person said that they “wished they were smarter so they could have understood.”
Despite my struggle to follow, I really enjoyed the presentation. Impey at one point shared that it is the job of science to explore the border between what we know and what we do not understand. I felt that this talk was a great presentation of that boundary with regards to the nature of the universe. I think it will be really enjoyable to read Impey’s books, How it Began and How it Ends . Impey concluded his presentation with the point that despite all the unknowns that remain, despite the puzzle pieces that have yet to be placed in our understanding, cosmology is keeping both the small (quarks) and the large (the cosmos) elements in view. This is a difficult balancing act to achieve, but it is critical if we are to progress further in our understanding of our universe.
The “Every Happy Family” was a full house of those eager to hear Cathy Marie Buchanan, Saleema Nawaz, and Shyam Selvadurai talks about their latest novels: The Painted Girls , Bone and Bread , and The Hungry Ghosts respectively. The night began with host Mark Medley of The National Post introducing each author, and who then read an excerpt from their respective stories. Buchanan detailed how she came to be interested in the story of Marie van Goethem. She was watching a documentary on Edgar Degas’ sculpture “Little Dancer,” and as a dancer herself Buchanan became extremely interested in the sculpture and the story of the girl who posed for it.
Buchanan’s Marie is a young ballet dancer who enters the Paris Opera Ballet who must sort out issues of family, sisterhood, male suitors, and the difficulties of growing up in the underclass of 1880s Paris. The sculpture was exhibited next to a sketch of two young criminals who Buchanan then imagined to be acquaintances of Marie’s and thus the intricate and complex relationships of the story were born. At the time of the exhibit there was much speculation about the criminal physiognomy of both Marie’s sculpture and the sketch of the young men and Buchanan points out that many scholars think Degas was in fact implying that people like Marie and the young criminals were innately criminal and depraved.
Saleema Nawaz was next to take the stage - a native of Ottawa and graduate of Carleton University - her book centers on two sisters growing up in Montreal. The sisters are faced with the death of their mother and each deal with this loss in different ways, the excerpts give the audience a sense that Nawaz’s novel is a sad coming of age story punctuated by sharp wit and humour.
Shyam then introduced his own story as a novel of memory taking place over the course of one night. The main character is a gay man in his 30’s living in Toronto but he and his mother are journeying to bring his grandmother from Sri Lanka to Toronto so that she can spend her last days there with them. He spends the trip recalling his life in Sri Lanka and in particular his difficult relationship with his grandmother.
After each author had read their excerpts and given the audience some background to their stories, they all gathered as a panel to discuss the themes of their stories with Mark. Cathy gave the audience a detailed background to the origins of her novel, and Mark asked the other authors what inspired their stories of family and coming of age.
Saleema discussed how Bone and Bread began as a short story and was inspired by the very first sentence of the novel. She was struck by the idea of two sisters losing their periods at the same time, one from becoming pregnant and one from developing an eating disorder.
Shyam said that his story was inspired by the idea of the grandmother character polishing silver as she does in one of the excerpts the audience was read. He said once he started writing her character she just would not shut up. He found an instinctive voice in her but then began to panic because it was not the story he set out to write. Cathy then agreed that as she did with Marie’s older sister, Antoinette, you sometimes simply have to give the characters the voice they demand and go with them.
Mark pointed out that each story was a kind of coming of age story that all dealt with unhappy families, and the authors discussed how families are a kind of juicy subject to talk about because they are a kind of unknowable and readers are always able to relate to the kinds of struggles and relationships families have. Mark moved on to talk about how he felt that one phrase in Saleema’s novel was extremely poignant and could be applied to all three novels, one of her characters says “too much closeness keeps people apart.” Saleema said this was true of the sisters in her novel because they always lived in such close quarters and cared for one another it became a kind of marriage they did not sign up for. Cathy said the problem with the van Goethem sisters was that they simply cared too much for each other which created problems between them. Shyam said that in his novel, the grandmother loves her grandson too much and has too many expectations for him which drives them apart.
Every story dealt with coming of age and family relations and each author was able to relate to one another’s stories. It was an interesting night that truly inspired reflection on the different definitions of family and the desire to write and read about something that is both knowable and unknowable.
I must confess to committing the minor literary sin of omission right here at the start of my review: I have not read any of Etgar Keret’s short stories. As a matter of fact the only thing I knew about the Israeli novelist before seeing him read from his latest book Suddenly, A Knock on the door was his co-director’s credit (his collaborator on the project being his wife Shira Geffen) for the critically acclaimed 2007 Israeli independent film Jellyfish.
Truthfully, I was far more interested in seeing Wiretap radio host, novelist, comedian, and Canadian answer to Woody Allen, Jonathan Goldstein. I’ve been religiously downloading the show for many years and I am a massive fan of the eccentric Montreal based cast of characters, some of whom remind me vaguely of certain people I was surrounded with growing up in that crazy city myself. I have also enjoyed the humour of Goldstein’s literary debut; a satirical take on the good book called Ladies and Gentleman: the Bible.
After spending an evening with Goldstein and Keret, however, at last night event at the National Art Centre, I must admit that I came away from the experience with the exact opposite feeling from the one that I had going in. That is to say, I marvelled at the wit, wisdom, intelligence and brilliant sense of humour of Keret, and hardly even noticed Goldstein’s presence at all!
A sample of some of the former’s more side-splitting quotes below.
On using sacred language of scriptures, Hebrew, as language for modern life: “It’s inappropriate to ask about the restroom.”
On writing non-fiction: “It’s for pussies!”
On bigotry: “Right wingers take it out on Arabs. Racists take it out on blacks. I am on the liberal left. I don’t have anyone to take it out on!”
On the question he wishes someone in his audience would ask, but never does: "For someone so good looking, how come you're a writer and not a model?"
Keret opened with a reading from his latest collection of short stories entitled The bus driver who thought he was God. Like so much of the writer’s work this story was born when he witnessed an incident on the streets of his hometown of Tel Aviv involving an old lady laden with groceries, chasing after a bus. This is a theme that he would return to repeatedly in the course of his one and half hour interview. It seems that many of his best ideas for stories come from his own everyday life experiences living in Israel. He claims that his writing style is unpretentious, not because he sets out to write in plain language and make his work more accessible, but because he lacks the craft and technical gifts to write like “real writers” do.
Goldstein put several good questions to the author, though often it was Keret who was the lively chatterbox, with firecracker wit to boot. He was content to natter on charmingly on everything from his marriage to his bowel movements. He was amazingly open about his personal life, the creative process and his insights into the way of the world today and the authors place in it. By the end of the evening, he had the audience eating out of the palm of his hand. And we who had been treated to joke after joke - each one funnier than the last - could not help but nod our heads in agreement with Goldstein when he said that it was really fun asking Keret questions. With an author as gregarious and endearing as Keret, the host and crowd don’t need to do much work at all. Just settle into your chair and brace yourself for the laughs.
Photo Credit: Christie Esau
Settling into my seat at Southminster United Church felt vaguely reminiscent of being on an airplane, which is oddly appropriate, given our guest of honour’s history of travel writing. After a brief introduction by Alan Neal, host of CBC’s All in a Day, we welcomed author Will Ferguson, three-time winner of the Leacock Medal for Humour and the 2012 recipient of the Scotiabank Giller Prize. We were certainly in for a treat.
I admit that, prior to my attendance at this event, my knowledge of Will Ferguson was limited to knowing that he is a Canadian travel and humour writer, and that he had attended the same high school as my husband. Clearly, I had much to learn. 419 , Ferguson’s most recent publication and the focus of tonight’s event, has been alleged by some to be a departure from his previous works. As anyone who has read Ferguson’s other works will surely attest, 419 is not really a departure. Rather, 419 takes readers to a place where pain exists, and—unlike a favourite story of Ferguson’s son—there are no more friendly ducks of childhood visiting to cheer us up.
Ferguson opened the evening by reading from both Canadian Pie and 419. The selection from Canadian Pie, a non-fiction anthology of Ferguson’s writing, reminds us that the Hardy Boys are a very different entity for a ten-year-old than they are for an adult. It only took a few short minutes for Ferguson to get hearty and frequent laughs out of everyone present, which proves even more so that he is greatly talented in crafting—sometimes humourous—stories from the everyday stuff of life.
One of the things I enjoyed most about this event was the depth with which Alan Neal delved into Ferguson’s writing process. Once upon a time, I was a student of literature, and all these questions of process are encouraging for the rest of us. Ferguson tells that his first idea for 419 was a “what if?” about Internet scams; namely, what if somebody tried to get their money back? I find it absolutely marvelous that a seemingly simple question can take us through stories and places as vast and complex as those of 419.
The biggest question asked by Ferguson through 419 is, however, would you kill for your child? This is the thread that draws Ferguson’s non-fiction humour pieces into 419; the love and struggles of parenting and relationships.
Near the end of the evening, Ferguson spoke of a conversation he had with a Nigerian man after 419 was published. Apparently, the man was surprised by how accurately Ferguson portrayed family in his book, to which Ferguson replied, “family is the same.” Ferguson is an expert at converting simple, common elements of story into dark and wonderful fiction.
I must admit, I made the distinct error of showing up at tonight’s event having not read Ferguson’s most recent title. Now, as I wade through the mires of near-overdue library books, I am certainly adding 419 to the top of my ‘to read’ pile. The last time Ferguson was in Ottawa for the Writers Festival was for its fifth anniversary on September 12th, 2001. Here’s hoping that his next appearance at the Festival is in much less than a dozen years!
It was a packed house on April 10th to see acclaimed author Alexander McCall Smith. While people shuffled through the pews of the Southminster United Church to find seats, I couldn't help but hear a number of excited fans talking about his books (and the words "charming" and "delightful" popped up quite a bit!) Listening to how warmly these audience members were talking about his work, it was no wonder that the event was sold out.
Actually, within ten seconds of hearing our kilt-clad Guest of Honour speak, it was also no wonder that his fans had chosen such affectionate words to describe McCall Smith and his work. He had everyone in stitches in no time, making the words "charming" and "delightful" pop up in my own mind, too. Clearly used to doing speaking engagements, McCall Smith opened with some jokes and a quick discussion about the importance of a novel's first line. His personal favourites include the first lines of Out of Africa (Isak Dinesen) and The Towers of Trebizond (Rose Macaulay). In particular, McCall Smith elicited giggles from the audience by emphasizing the intrigue that Rose Macaulay sets up with her first line ("'Take my camel, dear,' said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass"), noting that "there aren't enough camels in contemporary fiction."
As he took his seat opposite the evening's host, Inger Ash Wolfe aka Michael Redhill, McCall Smith asked which glass of water was his, joking: "When you're talking to a writer of mysteries, you have to be careful with the switching glasses...it could be part of the plot."
McCall Smith's quick wit was evident in all facets of their conversation, and he struck me as a brilliant man who is genuinely interested in people and what makes them tick. He clearly was not shy about discussing any topic (ranging from Freud's interpretation of the subconscious to Canadian ice fishing), and his good-natured curiosity about life likely feeds into the pleasure that he gets from writing—which is a good thing because he certainly writes a lot!
McCall Smith noted that he writes while he travels, and he's currently working to finish a novel in the 44 Scotland Street series. As the novels are first published in serial form in The Scotsman (the daily newspaper in Edinburgh), he must submit a chapter each day to the editor of the paper. "In nine years of doing it, we've never missed a deadline," he said, even though it came close once when he was travelling and lost his internet connection. In addition to his serial novel, McCall Smith is also working to finish another book by the end of June (this year), and yet another book by the end of July (also this year!). This discussion led the host to ask the question that was on everyone's mind: "How do you write so much?"
McCall Smith's answer made a lot of jaws drop: "I'm quite fortunate in that I usually write about 1000 words an hour...which will obviously add up." He also noted the importance of having a regime (he gets up early each morning to write for a few hours, sometimes starting at 4am), but the words "1000 words an hour" were the ones that rang the loudest in my ears. (I was a bit slow in picking my own jaw off the floor.) He joked about how it was really the fact that he had a word processor that made it so easy to write quickly, pointing out that authors such as Sir Walter Scott had to write everything out by hand (and imagine how many more books—or how much longer his existing books would have been—if Scott had been able to type them). Jumping to one of the tangents that I ended up quoting the next day (out of context, for my own amusement), McCall Smith explained that Sir Walter Scott had gallstones while he was writing, so he must have been in exceptional discomfort. "If an author had gallstones while writing," he said with a chuckle. "Then book clubs should really be more charitable. You should ask yourselves ahead of time, 'Is this a gallstone novel?'"
I must admit that I have a special soft spot for authors who love their characters, and McCall Smith truly seems to love his—especially Bertie from the 44 Scotland Street series. "He came to me out of nowhere," he said. "I'm so fond of that little boy." He is so fond of him, in fact, that he giggled as he regaled the audience with stories about what six-year-old Bertie has encountered and endured in Edinburgh...which, naturally, set the audience into more fits of laughter, too.
As the conversation turned to his strong female characters and Africa, McCall Smith countered the criticism that he sometimes receives about sugar-coating life in his novels by stressing that he wants people to know that there are a lot of good news stories happening in Africa, too—that people are "leading constructive lives in the face of very different circumstances. That [positive] reality is part of the picture, as well," he said. "People have the strange idea that fiction must focus on the dysfunction of life, that you're not being realistic unless you focus on the dysfunction." Being realistic, however, also means understanding that "lots of people in Scotland [for example] are living very straight-forward lives. Very few of them actually go around stabbing each other—except on weekends." (More laughter. I'm surprised that I could take so many notes, given how many times he got everyone laughing. My handwriting did get shaky at times as I tried to write something down in the midst of a cackle, though.) In terms of his strong female characters, McCall Smith noted that what interests him most is women who have to be good at dealing with negative situations (including historical patriarchy) when—or even because—the odds are stacked against them. "Their wit [is] their weapon against the condescension of men."
It is safe to say that Alexander McCall Smith has sky-rocketed to the top of my list of authors with whom I would like to go out for coffee/tea/beer/scotch. I could have listened to him for another hour (at least), but the event came to an end so that he could sign books for his very satisfied fans. If he comes back for a future edition of the Ottawa International Writers Festival , I will definitely be buying my ticket well in advance - and I highly recommend that you do the same!
Upper Canada Patriarch is the story of German-American immigrants, Conrad Ausman and his wife Lydia who opposed their families wishes and decided to come to Canada in the years following the American Revolution. As such, they would qualify as Late Loyalists rather than the Fighting Loyalists who actually partook in the armed struggle. The book stems from the author's research into his family's genealogy and attempts to address the questions as to why his ancestors would willingly choose the hardships of a pioneering life in frontier Canada over a more settled and culturally comfortable existence in the Mohawk valley of upper New York State. Since some of my own German-American Loyalist ancestors emigrated from the very same towns and villages (Herkimer and German Flats) mentioned in the novel, I readily jumped at the chance to read this novel. Like the author, John L. Ausman, I too seek answers as to why my fighting Loyalist forbears would have chosen to bear arms in defence of a culturally and geographically foreign monarch rather than to have chosen their neighbours' easier path of going along to get along in the full flow of what was to be America's first civil war. What were the political issues, the cultural context of the day which would impel young Americans to forgo the proclaimed liberties of the new Republic in favour of investing their lives in pioneer villages under the vagaries of a seemingly discredited constitutional monarchy?
Conrad Ausman's idée fixe is the desire to independently farm his own land and to acquire enough of it to pass on to his children as their patrimony. It is this vision which animates the entire novel. Conrad fell victim to the German tradition of his parents bequeathing their land to Conrad's younger sibling in return for his brother's obligation to look after them in their old age. With the price of land rising rapidly in the Mohawk valley, Conrad is forced to look either westward to Ohio or north to Canada as the base in which to quite literally plant his dream for his own and his progeny's future. When the new republic's need for taxation to stand up to foreign powers and fight wars hits the remote and isolationist German-American communities of the Mohawk valley, divisive conflicts arise which propel Conrad and his new wife towards the perceived tranquility of Canada.
The novel is broken into years and not chapters. At times this format appears a bit clunky and jerky as the author attempts to back fit the story spanning decades into the broad sweep of historical events as disparate as the War of 1812 and the Upper Canada rebellion of 1837. Characters and their development within the framework of the novel are a bit wooden and stunted. What it is however is a very credible projection of the interplay between the novel's principal characters and the defining historical events surrounding their lives which illuminates a narrative on early life in pioneer Ontario.
Ultimately, Conrad's attempt to control the destiny of his children in his country of adoption utterly fails, his offspring independently pursuing their own dreams and exploiting new commercial activities and opportunities in the rapidly developing province. The author is to be commended for shining a light on little known aspects of life in Ontario during this critical period of the province's development. With the exception of the present year wherein the War of 1812 has been of necessity brought to the forefront, it is a period of Canadian history of rapidly declining interest to our educational institutions caught up in the multicultural embrace of new immigrants for whom the tales of early struggles and tragedies in their country of choice holds little concern. Conrad and his noble wife Lydia eventually lie in unmarked graves. Their struggles and broken dreams long forgotten by new waves of immigrants who would give their weathered gravestones, even if they existed, scant attention as they flash by on daily commutes between block Buster Video and Walmart over the remains of the pioneers which lie beneath the asphalt and concrete wilderness of what is now the modern Greater Toronto Area.
A young couple lingers in their car saying good night when a knock at the window interrupts their intimacy: a male voice shouts: "get out!..." From this moment on the story that Steven Heighton shared with the audience at the Fall Ottawa International Writers Festival takes surprising turns. Steven Heighton, better known to many for his novels Afterlands and Every Lost Country, or as an award winning poet, comes into his own also as a master craftsman of short fiction with his recent collection, The Dead are More Visible. With his exquisite touch for exploring the extraordinary as part of ordinary lives, Heighton creates small gems of stories, full of twists and turns, some humourous, some haunting; always absorbing. He explains that he chooses between genres to match the idea, the topic or the "faits divers" he has come across, aiming always to remain, as long as possible, as surprised as the reader as he creates the narrative. Often he does not know where a small incident like a couple in a car at night will lead him.
Each of the eleven stories in this collection is tightly scripted, yet intricate in revealing the inner workings of his protagonists' minds and actions at a particular moment in time. Heighton focuses his lens on one or a few ordinary people caught up in unusual, even dangerous situations, real or imagined. While placing his characters into emotionally trying or physically challenging circumstances, each story explores one or more themes of human behaviour, understood as a building block for what confronts us and, by extension our society and humanity.
Take for example the long distant runner in Journeymen. You almost feel like holding your breath picturing the runner who, on the other side of fifty, is taking up the challenge of a very uneven race. When you, as a non-runner, can relate to what is going on in the runner's mind, as the adrenalin in his body rises, when you feel with him the uneven ground of the track. You then realise that you are in the hands of an exquisite wordsmith and inventive storyteller.
Among eleven stories not all will capture your attention in the same way or with the same intensity. Still, all are very engaging and worth reading, as Heighton persuasively builds the narrative tension in different ways and/or introduces some surprise aspect into a story when you least expect it. In Nought And Crosses, for example, the narrator analyzes a lover's last email that suggests a hiatus or more in the relationship. It is one of the most deeply moving ex-lover's laments that you can imagine, an intimate dialog with the beloved. In Outrip, a kind of Survivor challenge story, the reader follows an increasing hallucinating convict on his five-day punishment trek through the southern British Columbia desert. Written in the second person, we participate, like a voyeur, in Ben's inner struggles and physical efforts to move from one water hole to the next, long stretches apart. His dialog with the Fisher, an either real confrontational character or one grown out of the convict's exhausted mind and body like a Fata Morgana, reveals deeper existential reflections. For me this story stands out for its depiction of the landscape as well as its brilliant imagining of what happens to the human mind when one is lost in the desert (physical or metaphorical) and a water source is not anywhere near.
The deeper Steven Heighton reaches into the inner pathways of a human mind, the more they engage the reader and trigger reflections that complement our reading. Even the more externally descriptive or action oriented stories, such that of a young English teacher in Japan, learning the language from a bizarre primer and trying to teach the children fun and games, or the title story of a woman's unpleasant encounter while maintaining an ice rink at night, develop more than a punch and never lose the connection to the inner world of the protagonists.
Cosmo, as a collection, gives credence to its name as being vast - at points nebulous -and somewhat of a mystery. While the amalgam of short stories sets the reader out on what could become an interstellar journey, sometimes it doesn't quite get to the vast corners to which it initially positions itself to reach.
The opening salvo entrenches the reader in the world of Miss USA, and a corner of her mind that is weighing on her stiletto-presence in particular. While it plays on the hope that insecurity can be a bind that ties even the most beautiful to the rest of us, it evokes sadness more than anything else.
The second stop on the trip comes in the form of a sister and brother struggling with family and finding refuge in the bravado and theatrics of professional wrestling. Brushing on the sensitivities of mental deficiencies, the author manages to not evoke sympathy or pity while treading on what is everyday life for some. He succeeds in this regard, pulling together the family for a moment while showing the reader that it is likely fleeting, a flash of light that will likely not last but will be remembered.
The journey takes a strange and imaginative turn with a road trip featuring naked, rather, several naked, Matthew McConaugheys. Drawing again on pop culture references that are relatable to most 20 - 40 somethings, the author delves into the minutiae of a celebrity mind. It toys with how we think celebrities could think, in a rather cockish and absurd way that brings in elements of different fictional characters that are both fun and memorable. However, bringing the object of the subject's former affection can't quite quell the sense that like the protaganist, the writer is equally lost when it comes to the direction of the narrative.
Taking a dark turn from fiction to fact, we swerve close to the madness of a horrific shooting that occurred in Ottawa several years ago. Whether real or imagined, using actual quotes from former employees and peace officers leave a bloody trail.
In a more measured volume, the reader is taken into the mind of a mother who misses her son but also is having trouble coming to grips with modernity and his life outside of her. The allegory of a dying animal in the background doesn't really cover the pained ground between mother and son, nor does the animal die, leaving the reader a bit challenged on how to feel. Again, in the next entry, we are brought into the mind of another celebrity whose recent financial mishaps are well publicized in the news. In this case, Canadian icon Leonard Cohen decides to take the Subway Challenge, and begins to consider endorsing the product. While the imagery of a chubby Leonard Cohen grasping his love handles naked in the mirror does bring a smile, a one sided email exchange leaves the reader wanting more than simply a laundry list of complaints about a mediocre product by a fading and hesitant celebrity spokesperson.
In other incarnations, the writer takes to the pain of waiting for death by an author whose chosen pleasures, smoking and writing, have produced ashes and cancer, and little else. One has to wonder if the author is indulging himself rather than us on his own fears. He also waxes and coos over one Miley Cyrus, again making the reader wonder what is carefully crafted by the imagination and what is simply spilling over extemporaneously from his mind. However, tying the knots of the universe together is not as easy as it seems. Such is the case with Cosmo.
John Ralston Saul’s tragic-comic picaresque, Dark Diversions, is cleverly structured to begin as a short story collection and emerge as a cohesive novel. Surely a less knowledgeable, searching and well-traveled author would be unable to deliver with this bold structural experiment, yet Saul, largely by the individual fascination created by each of these increasingly absurd tales of the rich and privileged, certainly succeeds. There was a unique sense of satisfaction I received upon seeing the threads of the dozen or so short stories tied together, both in theme and plot, in the final chapters of the novel.
At the simplest level, it is a story of the drifting rich, in the vein of Fitzgerald, or even Tolstoy—a story of those modern souls possessing ample supplies of money, culture and power to keep them entertained for the remainder of their lives, yet unable to manufacture a healthy marriage, a sense of fulfillment, a love for life, even to stop themselves from doing something inconceivably evil.
Many of the stories echo the great modern stories from around the world. There is Gatsby-esque nouveau riche fraud, living in New York, driving a leased Rolls-Royce, showing paintings in a rented mansion, “most of them third-rate by first-rate artists,” infiltrating the upper tiers of New York society through a carefully plotted façade.
There is the Anna Karenina influenced tale of Jack, a filthy-rich American oilman pursuing an extramarital Mexican tryst with the clever, pretty blonde, Patty. He claims to love her deeply, yet can’t help but attempt to run her off a cliff. Like Anna, he feels trapped by love without any traditional structures holding it together. “How do I know she needs me; I mean, except for the money?” he asks in a moment of drunken vulnerability.
These are stories about the tragic intermingling of power and love, and certainly they are dark, sometimes to the point that reciting the plots alone would make them seem morbid and gratuitous. But Saul has a knack for compassionate characterizations, wry one-liners and wicked turns of phrase, and he successfully turns the merely depressing into black comedy, often with profound implications.
Thematically, the novel is typically postmodern: the tension between subjectivity and objectivity, and humanity’s capacity (or lack of it) for self-knowledge feature prominently. Saul’s technique in addressing these themes is brilliant, and is the most engrossing aspect of the novel: he begins with an anonymous narrator, a continent-hopping journalist, objectively narrating dramatic stories of the rich, the famous, and the powerful. Progressively, however, the stories become more intertwined, the transitions smoother, and his own personal involvement deeper. The first half dozen or so narratives hold almost no literal connection, and could be featured separately in a short story collection. The final three are deeply personal; they are the tragedies of the narrator’s own life. The narrator is incapable of maintaining his separation from the “dark diversions” he chronicles, and the final three stories tell of his own personal tragedy.
It’s a concept that Saul has talked of openly: “I came to like the idea of a narrator who spends the whole book creating the impression that he’s not involved, when really, it’s all about him,” he said in an interview with the Toronto Star. It isn’t till the last pages, though, that the reader becomes privy to this in Dark Diversions. The first half of the book is the narrator, Thomas Bell, gazing objectively on the face of evil, attempting to understand it. It isn’t till the middle that Bell even reflects on why he is doing this: “Something about the face of the devil and the unlimited forms it can take,” he muses, considering his penchant for “collecting dictators.”
In the last three stories, Bell is shocked from the illusion of objectivity that he has clothed himself with, and is horrified to find the evil that he has been examining in demagogues and adulterers is also within himself. By his inaction, Bell watches a woman die. Then, in the most compelling and complex narrative of the novel, Bell is given a set of diary entries from a recently deceased man whom Bell had known in his youth. Bell sees himself through the eyes of another, and his paradigm is shattered as he realizes that in his quest for knowledge through the stories of others he had failed to gain knowledge of his own self.
Saul is at his strongest in these rich concluding stories; he is at his weakest in the chapter “the narrator pauses to reflect,” in which the narrator does just that. It’s a bold but, I think, unsuccessful delving into the postmodern trend of “meta,” self-reflexive storytelling. The narrator, at this point, comes right out and has a chat with the reader about the story thus far, asking why, up to this point, we haven’t even heard the narrator’s name, and don’t know a single personal detail about him. The narrator then criticizes the late-twentieth century novel for being too prescriptive, and not letting the narrative speak for itself, which, the narrator then goes on to admit that that is what he is in the process of doing, and suggests, ironically that you ignore his musings: “this is crude narrator interference and you should ignore it.”
While the section is good for a laugh, I must say that I think you should actually take the narrator’s ironic advice here. The points made in the “meta” section are made more poignantly in the final chapters of the novel through the narrative itself, and I found myself wishing I’d had the privilege of unearthing the themes from the story myself rather than being handed them, tongue-in-cheek, by an ironic narrator.
Thankfully, even during the rare points where Saul’s innovation falls flat, a satisfying emotional core is maintained. It’s a story about a narrator’s realization that he is more than a narrator; he is the story’s life and blood, whether he likes it or not.