Review: Beauty Plus Pity, by Kevin Chong

>>Published: September 2011

“In my head, I imagined what my ideal dad would be like.”

“Really?” I asked. “So did I.”

Her eyes flared open. “Really? What was your ideal father like?”

“Oh, I don’t know. It’s probably different from what you’d imagine out of thin air.”

“Well, I always thought he’d be someone who could fix things. Stuff would fall apart in our house and my mom would tape it up. I used to hate it when she drove to school to pick me up in her car with the bumper held on with electrician’s tape. I didn’t necessarily think of him as being Asian, but I guess I always thought he’d look different from my mom, in a way that would make us look like a family. No one thinks my mom and I are related, which is sometimes a relief. Did you grow up feeling different?”

“Why? Because I’m Chinese?”

“No. I mean, yeah.”

***

Malcolm Kwan’s fiancée has abandoned him for another man, his father recently lost his battle with lung cancer, and he has a half-sister named Hadley that, until his father’s funeral, he had never before met. Wading through a mess of family and extra-familial repression, anxiety, cultural hyphenation, inexplicable forgiveness, abuse, and former lovers, Kevin Chong’s Beauty Plus Pity follows Malcolm as he struggles to make an impact on the Vancouver modelling scene, all while coming to terms with the death of his father and of what he knew—or thought he knew—about the man.

Malcolm’s journey is balanced by Hadley, his several-years-younger half-sister, and the unexpected connection they forge as they work through the memories and ideas of their father—who he was, how he cared for them, where he failed to do so. Neither Malcolm nor Hadley is complete; both have lived a life wishing for different circumstances, to have experienced more definitive cohesion growing up. Neither is broken, per se, by the actions and affair of their shared father, but both have spent far too much of their lives lamenting over what they felt they had missed.

The tone of Beauty Plus Pity is quiet, bordering on reserved. This is accentuated in part by the slightly non-linear approach to the releasing of certain plot and character information. Choosing to unravel the further details of the growing connection between Malcolm and Hadley through sometimes vague, half-explained conversations and things left unsaid offers an opportunity for surprise; when truly emotional beats do occur, they are wound rhythmically through the chapters, sifting back and forth conversationally between the past and the present—and in one startling instance, a sudden blink of insight into an upsetting future event.

This is Malcolm’s story, and Chong carries his introspective tone through to a very satisfying conclusion. Through his connection with Hadley, and given a chance to view his father from another’s perspective, Malcolm’s growth from a relatively soft-willed individual into a man capable of emotional confrontation is natural, not forced. And as such changes are sometimes capable of, the lives surrounding Malcolm are invariably affected as well. In some cases, a veil is lifted and an individual’s abrasive nature is seen through an unfiltered lens, as is the case with Malcolm’s mother; in others, Malcolm’s newfound confidence provides him with the impetus to enact change, to embrace and maybe even correct mistakes of his past—to be the man he wishes he had been all along.

Beauty Plus Pity is emotionally deceptive—Chong’s nuanced structure keeps emotions under tight control, to be revealed at the author’s discretion and not a moment sooner. This level of authorial control is especially poignant when considered alongside the Vladimir Nabokov epigraph. Chong knows he must kill his beauty to take Malcolm to the next stage of his life, to give him something to feel, something to latch onto that is concrete and tangible, beyond his tepid ambitions and failed relationships—to show him that art is a social production, and is guided by many. When pain and strife are ignored, art—true beauty—ceases to exist.

Review: Awakenings, by Edward Lazellari

>>Published: September 2011

Dorn’s attention wandered for a moment. When it returned, he surveyed the town around him. “I started this search for the prince cautiously, opting for a surgical approach in a world I barely understood,” Dorn said. “A strange land of magical drought that I never knew existed. I’ve since found my footing, Colby—we’re locating streams of magical energy here and there, buried deep. Enough to empower more ambitious sorceries. I’m reluctant because this place might yet have some uses for me and my ilk back in Aandor, but at some point, very soon, I will abandon my ‘surgical’ approach. And that will not bode well for the innocents of this world.”

***

A New York police officer and a down-on-his-luck-and-barely-worth-a-dime porn photographer, both sharing a mysterious bout of retrograde amnesia that’s wiped the last thirteen years from their lives; a beaten and abused teenager, adopted, despised by the family that’s acquired him, with a ruling future more dangerous than he knows; a heartless—literally—detective on the ropes legally, desperate for one last job to give him the funds he needs to buy himself a clean slate; and a strange and vaguely detailed magical war that exists behind the scenes, threatening each one of them and the lives of their loved ones.

Awakenings, the first novel from New Jersey native Edward Lazellari, is an amalgamation of fantasy tropes paired with a gritty, urban setting—a grime-encrusted counterweight to the “my lord / my lady” primer coat. The threat to Aandor and the race to capture the prince, unaware as he is to his role in events currently transpiring, is an interesting, if not altogether original premise, and Lazellari does little to turn it into anything unique. Instead, the work is content to mine the barest bones of descriptive content: explanations of Aandor, of Lelani and her centaurian nature, and of the magic that she and Seth are capable of are fast and loose, doing little to build a confident structure to their existence.

Any world building is done with paper-thin context, matching the very paint-by-splotches personalities of the main characters (the self-hating pornographer who leaches off of others and shirks his responsibilities; the selfless and noble family-first cop, torn between duties). Unfortunately, this makes it difficult to feel any sort of attachment to this band of merry disasters, as they appear as little more than conceptual sketches.

The two largest hurdles for this book, however, are its writing and its forced visceral tone.

The writing is sometimes difficult to grapple with due to the shifting maturity in language. The word usage and very simple, clichéd exchanges feel aimed at a younger audience; the language and graphic descriptors, on the flip-side, feel targeted for a very male-centric, 18-25-year-old demographic.

Whatever the aim of the writing, the tone of the book is where it truly falls apart. The violence and actions of certain characters, even between humans and without mystical interventions, is extreme, cribbing more from comic-book dynamics than anything approaching reality. The confrontation between Daniel and his father Clyde is a perfect example:

Daniel slammed him square in the face with his bag full of texts and sent the man reeling backward, grasping for the banister but too drunk to find it. Clyde landed on his back on the edge of the first stair and floor. Sprays of spit shot from his mouth as he yowled.

“I’m gonna rip you apart, you piece of shit,” Clyde bellowed. “And not gentle, like before!”

Daniel jumped from the middle stair and landed on his stepfather’s breadbasket. He heard a rib crack, and Clyde vomited the contents of his stomach over his own face. He choked on his own puke as Daniel leaped off him and made for the exit, but not before a hand grabbed his ankle causing him to fall into the door headfirst. Daniel saw spots and struggled not to black out.

This goes on for some time, with increasingly gratuitous descriptors (and culminating with the third pant wetting of the book, which in and of itself is a strange visual element to repeatedly draw upon). As a result, Awakenings, which is the first in a series, feels trapped somewhere between adolescence and adulthood—wanting to show its rough and tumble side and give a little “fuck yeah!” to the fantasy genre, but lacking the maturity, restraint and detail to pry itself away from its fantasy forbearers and Dan-Brown-meets-Chuck-Palahniuk literary devices.

Review: The Antagonist, by Lynn Coady

>>Published: September 2011

It’s like seeing pictures of yourself that you didn’t even know anyone was taking—candid camera—a whole album of worst-moment closed-circuit stills. There you are taking a dump. There you are saying precisely the wrong thing at the wrong time. There you are stepping on someone’s puppy while scratching your crotch.

***

Do you remember that asshole from high school? The one who strutted tall in the halls, walking with a such a wide swagger you’d think he had a dick the size of a Volkswagen between his thighs? The guy no one wanted to fuck with because, rumour has it, his fists could crush granite and knock someone’s mind all the way from reason back to stone tools and the missing link?

Gordon Rankin, protagonist of The Antagonist, is that guy. Only, he’s also not.

You might think, while crossing the street to avoid the six-foot-whatever monstrosity of genetics wearing an Icy Dream uniform, that Gordon Rankin—Rank to his friends, family, and faithful fearful—is a walking signpost for the juvenile detention system, but that would be only half the story. Less than that—Rank’s mistakes have been minor in number. It’s his size, his scope, and his associated abilities that have given his few infractions an imbalanced gravity.

The Antagonist details Rank’s existence through a series of emails written to a former friend-turned-author named Adam Grix between May and August of 2009. Through a chance encounter with a university friend-upon-a-time, Rank learns that Adam, to whom Rank had confided some of his darkest secrets twenty years prior, has written a book not so loosely based on the half-drawn image of Rank that Adam assumed he had known. Rank, understandably hurt and pissed off, emails Adam to set things right and tear apart his novel as the surface work of tabloid fiction it is. Along the way we meet Rank’s parents—the angelic Sylvie, and the bottom-feeding vein-buster Gordon Sr.—past loves, friends, and tragedies both owned and inflicted upon our unexpected hero. It isn’t long before a book-within-a-book meta-narrative evolves; Rank’s emails quickly transition from defensive posturing to a volatile form of self-therapy, then into a non-linear autobiography.

The non-linear nature of the book is its largest asset, but also an early liability. The Antagonist gets off to a bit of a rocky start. Written as if from Rank’s hand, the early image we’re given of our rock-solid goliath is hardly that of a deep thinker. Yet Coady’s writing is smooth, deliciously sarcastic, and vivid. At first, I struggled with The Antagonist in much the same way that I did with Emma Donoghue’s Room, published in late 2010. In Room, the author structured the book entirely from the perspective of a five-year-old boy. The problem, however, was that the voice of her protagonist was never convincing—it felt less like that of a five-year-old boy, and more like a middle-aged woman writing from what she imagined a five-year-old boy might sound like. The unfortunate result was a book that lacked sincerity and severity. But unlike the child protagonist of Room, Rank’s voice is given its proper evolution through the narrative. Though hidden from the reader at first, Rank’s intelligence and verbosity are given their dues, and the non-linear structure of the story, pinpointing the necessary dots on the line of Rank’s evolution, provides added weight to the opening chapters after the fact.

For all of Adam’s creative backstabbing and his misrepresentation of his former university friend, Rank still must come to terms with the three things that combined to set his feet marching down the wrong path in life: his size, his strength, and the abusive, quick-to-assume-the-worst-about-everyone nature of his father, Gordon Sr. Through the one-sided chain of emails that, in a roundabout way detail every last crucial detail as to the why and how of Rank, we see accusation, adolescent upheaval, and the acceptance of adulthood through the acknowledgement of past transgressions. Rank’s voyage of self-discovery begins in a place of anger, resentment, and betrayal—Adam’s betrayal offering a window into a lifetime’s worth of memories of being used and having the unwanted role of childhood enforcer thrust upon our sorry tour guide—and ends in catharsis that, through Coady’s graceful plotting and subtle character growth, feels entirely welcome and earned.

We cheer for Rank because we recognize in him the antagonists of our youth, and we hope the same soulfulness resides within them—hope for the species, and all that. The Antagonist defies early expectations. Lynn Coady’s newest is an intriguing, rewarding book, and once started I found it difficult to stop reading.

Review: The Odious Child, by Carolyn Black

>>Published: April 2011

>>Finally got around to it: September 2011

I want to try it on. I want to wear his voice. I invite it in.

I write a character like Martin into my story.

While the heroine stands in her kitchen, meditating in the fading light, there’s Martin, scratching himself and holding a bottle of scotch. “I have a hard-on for you a yard long,” he says, but it does not work. He is flat on the page. Nothing at all like the man whose company I shared during that first blissful week in bed. He hulks in my heroine’s kitchen, taking up space.

I make him thrust a hand up her skirt. I make him fling hot stew onto her cheek and twist her wrist backward. I make him drive his knee between her shoulder blades. And finally, finally, before slamming out the door, he burns red lines onto her naked breasts with a hair straightener. The violence is not convincing though. Even the heroine seems unmoved, picking herself up afterwards and raising one eyebrow, alone with her thoughts and the charcoal-sweet smell of singed, blistering flesh.

***

It’s funny, the shreds of truth that peek through a writers’ work—expected or not. A great many authors through the years could be accused of writing from beneath an idealized veil, their protagonists representing what they see (or hope to see) as the best and brightest of humanity. Maybe they’re writing their own idealized selves into the pages, constructing a fabrication so self-serving their future obituaries would flush with embarrassment. More interesting, however, are those who turn the magnifying glass to the scratched and rusted underside of a coin—the authors and artists who see the imperfections and mistakes in their own past and the pasts of others as the true meat of creative extrapolation. Carolyn Black takes this a step further.

The eleven stories in The Odious Child sketch a darkly comic cityscape of characters so strange, staccato and lackadaisical that they frequently trip across the line of reality and into the surreal of urban fantasy. Perhaps more telling is the controlled yet authoritarian hand of Black, stripping her characters down to very basic interactions and densely given observations. They are difficult to pin down at first, lacking three-dimensionality in their thoughts and mannerisms. But it is in the paring down of these elements that another unexpected dimension is revealed—these are not avatars or simulacrums of the author, or various facets of her and those around her; they are her unwanted children, barely-there humans that have been starved and beaten and locked in the basement for as long as possible. In simple terms, disdain is the most prominent emotion I felt reading these stories. Disdain and, to be blunt, a near-total lack of respect.

It is that lack of respect that puts The Odious Child in another playing field altogether. Black has positioned herself as a schoolmarm in control of an unruly, socially dysfunctional gathering of personalities that, given the opportunity, would inevitably place themselves in harm’s way—not through masochism or decreased intelligence, but through an almost undeveloped way in which they perceive the world around them:

But the father is already running in a circle with his arms spread, making buzzing sounds, looking hopefully at the baby. A suitor with plane wings.

In her arms, the baby takes a bite of air and then spits it out. Pfffft.

What she and her husband have been reduced to! They used to be bookish and discerning. She thought of them as the neighbourhood intellectuals, the father working as a research scientist at the Environmental Studies Institute, the mother teaching English literature at the city college. Now she reads only baby books. Irritation flares in her throat.

She extinguishes the feeling and stops nibbling the baby’s fingers. She has heard other women call babies “delicious,” but she is not such a woman. She does not want to eat her baby. She does not want to harm her baby in any way.

The parents in “Baby Mouth,” quoted above, represent a common voice found in many of the stories—a childlike diction and frankness of speech. The honesty at which characters like the protagonist of “Serial Love” voice their innermost thoughts, completely lacking an internal common sense filter, is at once startling, endearing, and downright funny. Black has given them a nakedness by which they present themselves to the world, totally devoid of self-editing—again, much like that of a child. Similarly, extreme emotional responses are also common, such as the jilted lover in “Games” who:

… worked up an eight-month sulk in response to a poem he wrote about me. A poem so moody and unpredictable as the weather (a predictable and solid metaphor, to be sure, for a woman, the weather).

The line Black walks, as author and curator of these strangely vacant but still engaging personalities, is a fascinating one. On one side of it are characters that are both world-wearied and still completely naïve; on the other side is an author who acknowledges the necessary existence of these individuals, but who chooses to address them with an uncommon, forceful hand. Technically, her use of metaphor is something akin to caressing an open palm and slicing a lifeline into it with broken glass—often as unexpectedly blunt as her characters’ rigid actions and decisions. And though I felt slightly less investment in “Hysteria” and “The Odious Child,” there is not a story in the collection that feels out of place or lacking polish in any way.

The Odious Child is very different from other short fiction collections I’ve read this year. It is more revealing than most, but not in ways you’d expect. Carolyn Black has offered up a slate of diverse dysfunctions in need of a strong, reprimanding hand—one she is more than willing to provide. In doing so, she has also given us one of the most open and naked collections of short fiction I’ve read in some time.

Review: The Burning, by Jane Casey

>>Published (UK): November 2010

>>Published (North America): September 2011

I whipped around, pivoting on one foot, and as I moved I sensed rather than saw something cutting through the air, aiming for my head. I wasn’t conscious of feeling any pain when the blow landed, just a dizzying sensation of utter weakness. I knew that I had to keep moving, I had to get away, but my legs wouldn’t carry me and someone was still shouting, shouting at me, shouting my name. I fumbled for the CS spray and felt it slide out of my hand, clattering to the path and now the pain was coming, as if from a long way off, and I was aware of more blows landing, and pain bloomed along the side of my head, and I fell to my knees, thinking that I should do something, thinking that my parents would be so disappointed in me, thinking that Ian had been right, thinking that Rob would be furious. I’d wanted to do better. I’d hoped to do better. The world was receding but my thoughts kept spinning irrationally as the ground came up to meet me and my cheek hit it and I opened my eyes to see a boot swinging towards my face and that was the thing, in the end, that just

made everything

stop.

***

Detective Constable Maeve Kerrigan isn’t content to slip into the background, to be overshadowed by her male peers. The ambitious protagonist of Jane Casey’s North American debut, The Burning, must contend with parents that fear for her safety and decry her chosen career, a boyfriend who grows more distant with each phone call that pulls Maeve into the field at three in the morning, the frequent lack of faith in her abilities exhibited by her superiors, and a murderer who’s taken to setting fire to four young London women. When a fifth body turns up, Maeve inserts herself into the victim’s circle of family and friends, to learn as much about her as possible. What she discovers casts doubt on whether the fifth victim was murdered by the same person, a serial killer dubbed the Burning Man, or if Rebecca Haworth was killed by someone else altogether.

Part police procedural, part psychological drama, The Burning is a highly readable, though not altogether original mystery. Split 70/30 between two voices, Maeve, and Rebecca Haworth’s best friend, Louise North, Casey takes the interesting approach of shuttling the serial killer mystery to the background, using it as impetus for exploring Maeve’s character in greater detail—the reasons for her ambition, the distance felt in her personal life, and the somewhat oppressive nature of some of her peers as she attempts to overcome their obvious sexism. Maeve herself is an interesting enough character, though she does feel pieced together from parts of other mystery protagonists over the years: the ambitious young detective desperate to make her mark, removing herself from those that care and worry about her… none of these elements are particularly unique to Casey’s writing, but she handles them with confidence and ease.

Louise North, on the other hand, is given less room to breathe. As interesting a device as the split narrative can be, Casey writes from Louise’s perspective with less assurance, cobbling her perceived personality together from extraneous sources in a manner that removes some of the mystery surrounding the character. Without giving anything away, the Louise sections of each chapter tipped a hat to certain details too soon. As I was reading, I couldn’t help but feel that had the perspective remained with Maeve for the entirety of the book, several key elements of the mystery would have been less obvious and more widely distributed amongst the many suspects in both Rebecca Haworth’s murder and the larger hunt for the Burning Man.

Casey’s writing is simple and to the point—she doesn’t waste time with extraneous details or sidetracks from the plot. The narrative is lean, direct, and has an excellent pace to it. In fact, the only place I would say the pacing falters is at the very end, when we are treated to an unfortunate information dump as the final chapter. This was disappointing, as up to this point Casey had done a terrific job of feeding the reader just enough to cull together the various plot threads on our own. However, in the eleventh hour, she opts for the obvious approach and offers a blow-by-blow account of the killer’s machinations. The frustration in this is that she’s telling us what happened, when there was more than enough already shown as to make this an unnecessary step. It reads as if, at the very end, the author was uncertain whether or not the details of her killer’s mind and rationale were obvious enough for the average reader. The tragedy in this is that it tackles the otherwise quick pace of the plot and pulls it to its knees.

Mild frustrations aside, The Burning is an exciting thriller that introduces an interesting new character in Maeve, and I suspect we’ll be seeing her again before too long. Casey’s control over a mystery is strong, and I’d like to see what she can do with a more mature hand and increased confidence in her readers.