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  • Wilma Aalbers

December Reads Part One




Amanda Boyden, I Got The Dog


You may recollect a previous piece I wrote on Joseph Boyden, which was instigated by the recent release of his ex-wife Amanda’s book. More specifically, by an interview with The National Post in which she shared that their writing practice always happened simultaneously and collaboratively. They wrote sitting together at the same table, exchanging ideas and offering edits. While she never says it directly, you could surmise from the interview that Amanda herself had a heavy hand in the writing of her more famous husband’s novels.


Having read this memoir, and attempted but never finished her previous novel, Pretty Little Dirty, I have to tell you: there is no way she wrote any of Joseph Boyden’s books. Sorry. Also, if what you’re looking for here is a kind of reflective and thoughtful analysis of their relationship, including details about all the philandering, you will not find it. What you will find instead is a non-linear memory mash-up that is disappointingly free of gossip.


There’s a genre of storytelling that I think can safely be called, “My Lover Cheated on Me and I am Pissed.” I’m thinking of Kim Gordon’s Girl In A Band in particular, which, like Boyden’s story, was clearly written in the immediate aftermath of the dissolution of a marriage. As a result, the writing is raw and compelling, but does not view events with the perspective gained through time passing. Is that a critique? Not exactly. But it means that what the reader gets is not what you expect to get in picking up the book.


I Got the Dog tells stories you were not expecting to get. It is maddeningly short on certain details, bizarrely long on others. On page 56, for example, we read this: “My sister Meg and I worked at the same diner, and on weekend nights we usually stayed up till 2 or 3. I’d quit cocaine at that point. For a short while I’d dealt drugs, occasionally to famous people.”


I’m sorry. What?


This is the very first and only mention of cocaine, which you’d think would be the story to tell instead of the enumeration of many banal and dead end jobs Amanda had as a young adult. At a certain point she claims that as a child she dreamed of being a professional gymnast or writer, but we never learn what drew her to writing and what role writing has served in her life. Later in the book we are also treated to: many recounted dreams, stories about packing up and moving to yet another midwestern city, and a five-page exploration of the various and colourful Mardi Gras costumes Boyden and her friends put together for several years' worth of parades. She explains that after awhile she was no longer interested in participating in the all-night debauchery of New Orleans’s most famous parade. Why not? It’s hard to tell because SHE DOESN’T SAY. Personally, I’d rather read about how she and Joseph met and what their relationship was like, but I’m not the one in charge of the narrative here.


Amanda Boyden is incredibly unlucky. She attempts to skydive twice and both times her primary and secondary parachutes malfunction and she and her guide must make what amount to emergency crash landings. Her beloved dog Fry is almost scooped up and taken away by a “huge ferruginous hawk or juvenile eagle” in their backyard in Kansas City. Her first novel about a circus troupe travelling the American South was set to go up for auction September 14, 2001. I’m not a superstitious person, and I know we all face weird, badly timed obstacles but still, that’s some bad juju.


At the age of twenty, Boyden was the victim of a violent, horrifying rape. Her retelling of this incident, in contrast to the whole rest of the book, is sharply focussed and extraordinary. She tells two stories at once, dividing the page into columns, like a news article, where the left column is a telling of the story as it happened at the time, and the right is her commentary on the event years later. It’s an incredibly effective use of structure, drawing attention visually to the fragmentation of self that resulted from the assault. And perhaps that fragmentation is what is at the root of the willy-nilly storytelling. Previously, I suggested that her perspective of the point blank shooting that she and Joseph witnessed on a street in New Orleans would be worth reading. But it’s not even described here, only mentioned in passing, as if hardly important.


We never know, I guess, which of our experiences are going to stick.


Souvankham Thammavongsa, How To Pronounce Knife


Sometimes short story collections can be tough to love. Unlike novels, they offer a series of not-always consistently good encounters with characters and events. Sometimes, you’re just starting to love a character and then their tale is over and you have to get to know a whole new one.


Then again, as the Canadian great Alice Munro shows us, over and over again, the short story is also a singular art form with the ability to efficiently deliver a powerful gut punch. See also Miranda July, Lydia Davis and Italo Calvino for examples of short story mastery. Also, it’s totally safe to include Souvankham Thammavongsa in that list, because this collection is incredible.


In the book’s opening, a child named Joy comes home from school with a note pinned to the front of her shirt by her teacher. Joy’s mother, unable to read English, throws the note away. “If the contents were important, a phone call would be made to the home. And there had been no such call.” Immediately, the reader understands that the child is alienated at school, taught by someone who believes communicating via notes pinned to a child’s body is acceptable. Just learning to read, Joy asks her father for help pronouncing the word in the title of the book. “Kah-nnn-eye-fff. It’s kahneyff” he tells her, and it is this incorrect pronunciation she uses reading aloud at school. Her classmates laughingly correct her, but the humiliation of the experience, and Joy’s new understanding of her father as a person who makes mistakes, are devastating.


Later in the book, we meet a fourteen year old whose mother has decided to train her to harvest worms at a hog farm. They wake up in the middle of the night, drive to the farm and crouch along the ground, filling styrofoam cups (attached to their ankles using scrunchies) with squiggling worms. Other stories are about manicurists, bus drivers and factory workers, many of them former professionals in their home country of Laos, now cobbling together a spartan living in Canada. They are not just poor, but disrespected; not just overlooked, but also denied opportunities. In the worm picking story, the job of foreman at the hog farm is given to a white teenaged boy whose only experience was taught to him by the remarkably talented mother of the narrator. And yet, he becomes the one in charge of her work environment, enforcing rules and restrictions that ultimately drive her out of the job.


The children and young adults of these stories are their parents’ hope for a better life. They are the reason for undertaking a perilous and illegal journey across the ocean to start a new life, and the burden of that hope, the work it takes to bear, weighs heavily.


Susan Choi, Trust Exercise


This is one of the most interesting books I’ve read, maybe ever. In both content and form it immediately engages readers with a tale of teenagers in drama class. Then, sneakily, it challenges us to evaluate and re-evaluate the relationship between truth and fiction, the purpose of acting and its ability to represent truth through pretending. Divided into three separate parts, each one titled “Trust Exercise”, the novel begins with a familiar and straightforward story of a cohort of students at a school for performing arts in the Southwestern U.S. in the early eighties. Maybe California? The location is never specified, but described in a way that suggests a sprawling city with few sidewalks but many multi-lane highways.


In Part One, Sarah, has recently begun a relationship with her classmate David. The book’s first line, “Neither could drive” points to a recurring motif in Sarah’s section, that of driving as a form of freedom. Characters with their own cars are envied, the cars themselves reflective of their owners’ personalities. Later, when David is old enough to own a car, it is a swanky convertible that he treats shabbily, a metaphor for his disregard of the wealth / freedom he has but so casually takes for granted. Sarah’s classmate Karen drives a fixer upper, and it is this jalopy, which brings Sarah to the section’s climactic party, that ultimately defines her fate.


I’m getting ahead of myself here. Sarah and David spend the summer together, and on returning to school a moment of misunderstanding shatters their love. David has purchased a gift for Sarah that he proudly presents to her in front of their drama classmates, begging her to open it right away. Sarah is embarrassed, not wanting to reveal the relationship to everyone else, and says she’ll open it later, which humiliates and angers David. This ends their relationship, surprisingly early in the story, and they do not again speak of the incident or spend time together, except when drama class requires it.


This incident is such a beautiful and authentic representation of adolescence. Old folks like me might be inclined to think, “Why don’t they just talk to each other?” At fifteen, Sarah and David can’t begin to honestly address their feelings for each other, because that’s the way fifteen year-olds work. Cruelty through fear and foolishness. Or, as Choi writes, “Intuition only tells them what they want, not how to achieve it, and this is intolerable.”


Unfortunately, the nature of their school, and in particular their drama teacher, Mr. Kingsley, makes it impossible for them to avoid each other. Everybody knows there is no place to hide in drama class. Having listened in confidence to Sarah’s story of the break-up, Kingsley appears to take pleasure in manufacturing scenarios where Sarah and David must work closely together, demanding their cooperation and honesty while the whole class watches, squirming. At another point in the story, one of Kingsley’s class exercises leads to a falling out between Sarah and her friend Joelle, who leaves the class crying. Sarah feels nothing in this moment, but understands that Kingsley believes she should go after Joelle and speak with her. Sarah does, acting the role of the supportive friend, and repairs their relationship. At the same time, she recognizes this experience as one that is inherently false; she is behaving in a way that is not true to her feelings, but that is nevertheless expected of her. She is acting.


Part Two, also called “Trust Exercise” is narrated by the character “Karen”, classmate and peripheral figure in Sarah’s story. This part of the novel takes place in 1997, and Sarah has published the story we just finished reading. “Karen”, who never provides her real name, has read Sarah’s book and is unhappy with its representation of events that she herself lived through. She wishes to confront Sarah about the discrepancies and the section opens with her standing in line at one of Sarah’s book signings.


Let’s just take a moment to admire the boldness of this narrative move. Any time we read a story, we take on trust that the author is presenting something “true” if not in the historical sense, at least say, philosophically or personally. As a reader, for example, I was so invested in Sarah’s story that I never wanted it to end. Then, boom, it did, and there I was, 131 pages into a book, listening to a trusted source (i.e. someone who was “really there”) tell me about all the specific ways Sarah’s story is inaccurate. Holy shit. It’s an aesthetic coup.


Karen is hurt that Sarah has so badly misrepresented her, and proceeds to tell the story herself, mixing it together with her current reality, working as a freelance accountant in their former home town. While previously we accepted Sarah’s reliability at face value, Karen is, from the beginning of her part of the story, suspect. She frequently refers to her own therapy journey, spends a great deal of time defining words in search of the exact one she needs to tell the story accurately, and, tellingly, slips from third person narration into first. Karen is clearly not okay. As a subject and narrator, she is fascinating.


By the time we get to the third part of the book, the third “Trust Exercise”, our understanding of the first has been significantly destabilized. This section, the briefest and perhaps most confusing, fills in details disregarded by both Sarah’s and Karen’s stories, but certainly does not provide the whole or true story.


In fact, as the novel proceeds through its three parts, our grasp of what is “true” or “real” becomes less and less reliable. Brilliantly, I think, Choi has created a novel that, like theatre of the absurd, calls attention to itself through its own form. We enter in, expecting a certain experience and receive quite a different one. “Of the trust exercises, there were seemingly endless variations” Sarah observes, early in the book, and the rest of the story proves it.


If you don’t mind spoilers, or if you’ve read this book and are still interested, here’s an interesting analysis by Katy Waldman of The New Yorker. Or, listen to Susan Choi talk about the book (no spoilers in this one) with the great Eleanor Wachtel on Writers And Company.



Haruki Murakami, After The Quake


You already know about my thing with Murakami. Despite several clunkers in his oeuvre, I simply can’t stop reading his books. Welcome to one of his very best, in my humble opinion.


I’m pleased to report straight off, in a delightful change from the usual Murakami narrative, that female characters in these stories are complex, insightful, and wise, acting within the full scope of their unique personalities. You will not find lingering descriptions of their breasts, or ears or outfits. This proves to me that he is capable of writing such women, and I’d like to say they are the kind of women we meet in his later books. But you and I both know that is not the case. Looking at you IQ84.


After The Quake comprises six short stories, their characters all in some way affected by or connected to the real life earthquake that struck Kobe, Japan on January 16, 1995. In the first one, called “UFO in Kushiro”, a woman spends five straight days watching coverage of the earthquake on television. On the sixth day, her husband Komura comes home to find that she has disappeared, leaving him a note explaining that he is a good husband, but that living with him is like living with “a chunk of air”. As so often occurs when a woman leaves a man in a Murakami tale, Komura spends very little time reflecting on why she has left or where she has gone. He does take a week off work, though, during which he delivers a small package to a co-worker’s sister, Keiko. We never discover what the package contains. Weirdly, Komura does not seem interested in it at all, despite its clear importance to Keiko, but this is in keeping with his lack of curiosity about his wife’s departure and arguably, his lack of engagement in his own life.


My favourite story in the collection is the second one, called, “Landscape With Flatiron”. In it, a young woman named Junko spends an evening on a beach with her older, seemingly homeless friend Miyake. The relationship between the two is clearly a friendship, with no suggestion of romance or chemistry. I loved this, because reading it made me realize how rarely such relationships appear in the stuff I read and watch. Anyway, as they stare into the bonfire, Junko recollects the Jack London story called, “To Build a Fire”, in which a man travelling alone in the Alaska wilderness dies because he cannot get a fire started. Junko and Miyake talk about the fire itself, and make a pact to commit suicide together once it goes out. But all along, you get the sense that they will not actually do this. They are joined in some way by their attraction to fire and their understanding of each other’s feelings of emptiness, but we know (even if they do not) that the connection will not go away when the fire does. Even though the story ends before we know for sure whether its characters fulfill their promise to each other, somehow this feels not unsatisfying but appropriate.


The remaining stories are equally intriguing in that they refuse to tie up loose ends. There is one about a man searching for his lost father, who is missing part of an earlobe, another about a woman who is told by a fortune teller that she has a rock inside of her that she can only get rid of by dreaming of a snake eating it, still another called “Super Frog Saves Tokyo” in which a giant frog instructs a regular guy to keep watch while the frog saves Tokyo from imminent destruction. Are these events real or are they dreams? They feel real, is all I can tell you.


Murakami’s writing is always concerned with a random occurrence that creates a shift away from ordinary life and into the surreal. The characters in these stories may not live close enough to Kobe to be directly affected by the earthquake, but the event is nevertheless a catalyst for change, a cause for disruption and an opportunity for new understanding.



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