Review: Ablutions, by Patrick deWitt

Ablutions>>Published: January 2009

>>Finally got around to it: May 2013

Heading down the hall a man asks if you are working and you point to the mop and bug your eyes at the question and he hands you a cellular phone he has found. This gives you an idea and you do not clean up the vomit but lock yourself into the storage room and call 911 to report your suspicion that there is a bomb set to explode on the premises of the bar. You give a detailed account of an overheard conversation between two swarthy, bearded men and before you are even off the phone you can hear the shrieks of the customers and the breaking of glasses as firemen rush through the bar to clear the room. You reach up for a bottle of Jameson and break the seal, taking a long drink and inhaling deeply from a cigarette. When the evacuation is completed you let yourself out of the storage room and the bar is empty, and you walk from one side to the other drinking the whiskey and smoking, and crying softly—you cannot tell if the reason is relief or sadness. You look for Curtis’s body but it has been moved. On the bar where Raymond was sitting you find a half-crumpled drawing of an adolescent boy, shirtless and in cutoffs, with a penis like a lasso. He is whipping it over his head and looks very happy to be living. You stuff this into your pocket and walk to the men’s room where you find the child actor in a ball beneath the sink. There is drool draining from the corner of his mouth and his eyes are open to slits but you cannot see his pupils, and the reddened whites, and his breath is indefinable and you stand and kick him hard in the stomach and he vomits a cupful of gin and bile. Wiping the tears from your face you set your whiskey bottle and cigarette on the sink countertop and stand back against the far bathroom wall and rush forward to kick him in the center of his moaning face.

***

A nameless barman in a Hollywood bar populated by only the lowest of the low, sinking ever deeper into a whiskey-soaked state of self-satisfied annihilation via inebriation. Such is the scene Patrick deWitt invites readers into for his first novel, Ablutions.

Originally subtitled Notes for a Novel, Ablutions is a narrative in the seldom-used second person perspective: “you” do this, “you” do that—no I, no he, she, it, or they. I’ve often found this perspective troublesome, except when used in epistolary tales, but deWitt employs it to great effect. The Jameson Irish whiskey-loving, money-skimming protagonist—an anti-hero for the modern day, if ever one existed—is a fascinating, despicable split between total narcissism and self-hatred. Through the second person point of view, he stands just outside of himself at all times, looking down upon himself and being disgusted by what he sees, but somehow being arrogant about it—as if the gradual obliteration of his life and connections to all he at once held dear (his wife, his friends, what little he could call a career) is a point of pride, of strength. He can at once criticize himself without completely hating himself.

This arrogance is bolstered by the seemingly grand amounts of pleasure he takes in destroying the lives of others, be it financially (stealing stacks of cash from the bar), physically (abusing patrons, as in the segment above), or ethically (selling Simon and his out-of-control cocaine addition out to the bar owner’s widow, redirecting her suspicions that the narrator has in fact been the one stealing their money… which, of course, he was). As great a force of self-destruction as the narrator is, he’s even more in love with how clever he is, and how easily he is able to manipulate those around him just long enough to make his escape from the bar, and ostensibly from California.

Whether or not he escapes is irrelevant in the end, because he’s learned no lessons, experienced no true moral conundrums. The manner in which he’s distanced himself from who he is and how he operates implies a total lack of evolution; the scenery might change, but the cad remains the same. This is further exemplified by the use of the word “Discuss” at the opening to so many paragraphs. He’s a documentarian of sorts, noting behaviours and idiosyncrasies of others for, one suspects, the great work of literature he will one day piece together, if and when he manages to crawl himself out of his whiskey obsession long enough to ever put pen to page. However, his approach serves only to distance himself further—not just from who he is, but form everyone around him and why their lives matter, if not to him then to someone.

In this unnamed alcoholic wannabe writer, deWitt has crafted a compelling yet totally deplorable protagonist—one you simultaneously want to succeed and get his shit together, and one you hope fails, completely and utterly, getting his just desserts from one of the many co-workers or bar regulars he’s taken such pleasure in placing beneath his heels. With vivid, florid language, deWitt has painted both a shithead and a shithole none should ever hope to emulate, but nonetheless will be glad to have experienced.

Review: The Lake and the Library, by S.M. Beiko

Image>>Published: May 2013

I smacked the flashlight head, wishing I’d bothered to change the batteries before I left home today. It flickered, but wouldn’t light. I struggled to my feet, knees quaking from the cold, until I stumbled out into the open, wheeling forwards and expecting to land flat on my face again. Instead, my hands met something square, ribbed, and wooden. My fingertips danced and touched and tried to read what I felt in the darkness, but sudden lightning served my need, instead. There they were: shelves, bindings… books.

I fumbled with the flashlight, smacking it so hard the pain sang in my hand. I was desperate. Like a spooked horse, it sprang into action, and my small halo of yellow light revealed the unbelievable truth. In front of me were books, mountains of them, of every size and shape I could imagine, caked in dust. The shelves went on for dark miles, and emboldened by how all of this had to be a dream, I wandered into the centre of the massive room I’d wriggled in to, finding myself face to face with the huge rose window—the window that, in a dream flash, had been a giant, winking eye. Rain pelted it from the other side, where the real world ended and this one began. I stepped reverently into the dim, rose-shaped light the window cast onto the floor, and I realized what this place was. After sixteen years of dreaming, after a decade of enduring Treade and its deprivation of my soul… I had fallen down the rabbit hole and landed in a library.

***

It’s a book lover’s dream come true: a library where every book opened, every spine cracked flat is a doorway to another world, another realm so very different from our own. Great works of fiction, the ones we remember most, that live with us, strike a balance between escapism on one hand and holding a mirror up to our world and our selves with the other. When the final page is turned and reality seeps back into the equation, the illusion is broken. To be able to literally step inside any book and have it be a world, full and tangible—to be able to fashion actual wings from the pages of stacks of books and travel to new heights—is a fantasy most die-hard readers likely have more often than they’d care to admit.

S.M. Beiko’s young adult novel The Lake and the Library teases this idea, but never fully embraces it. The novel centres on a young woman named Ashleigh—Ash. Ash and her mother have been stuck for a decade in a dull armpit of a town: Treade, Manitoba. Not so tiny you’d miss it on a map, but certainly smaller and less lively than Winnipeg, Treade feels a little like a fly-over prairie town where the grain elevators are as much an attraction as they are a sign of the town’s simple (and often boring) way of life.

Ash’s mother, a chain-smoker with unchecked medical problems and a penchant for wanderlust (or getting into trouble and having to up and move with little to no preamble), has informed her daughter that they will be moving by the summer’s end. This of course causes heartache for Ash and her two best friends of ten years, Paul and Tabitha. At first, Paul and Tabitha pull back, preemptively shielding themselves from the hurt that will come in only a couple of month’s time.

Ash is torn, because she herself is a dreamer. She reads and paints and fantasizes of a life away from Treade’s confined way of life, but at the same time she fears losing her two closest friends—and through losing them, letting go of her childhood. There’s a strong growing-up-is-hard-to-do vibe running through all their interactions—something any kid who school-hopped their way through life will likely find kinship with.

Determined to have one last adventure before leaving Treade, possibly forever, Ash decides to break into a decrepit, abandoned building the three of them discovered in the middle of Wilson’s Woods. This of course is the library from the book’s title. Once inside the library, and once her awe has run its course, Ash meets the mysterious and enigmatic Li—a young man, mute but more than capable communicating via gestures and sign language, who may or may not live in the library.

Ash and Li strike up a friendship that quickly crosses the line into love—or something supernatural meant to feel like love. As Li opens an infinite number of doors for Ash, taking her into the worlds of the books surrounding them in the library, Ash becomes overwhelmingly infatuated with Li. At first she’s fearful of their connection—fearful that because of how she feels about him she might want to stay in Treade, a town she knows, deep down, she doesn’t belong. But Li’s magic, his love for her, is strong, and Ash rapidly loses her grip on reality. She pushes her friends away first, diminishing their already limited time left together, then she starts ignoring and lashing out at her mother. She resents the lot of them for the little time they pull her away from Li, away from her perfect romance. Her actions are akin to a drug addict’s, and the influence of the fantasy on her mind and her way of thinking, her desperate desire to not grow up and admit to the changes happening in her life, causes her to hurt those who care for her most of all in both emotional and physical ways.

Interspersed with many of the chapters is a supplemental story—small chapters showing a son and his mother as he prepares, against his wishes, to take control of his deceased father’s business.

The Lake and the Library is a bit of a dichotomous experience: its core concept is engaging and the novel is difficult to put down, but it is also infuriating and at times painfully purple. Beiko’s character work is strong—Ash, Paul, and Tabitha are believable for their age, and their friendship feels genuine—and the mystery behind the library is fun. However the novel suffers from an overabundance of adjectives, which grinds the pacing of some of the more climactic scenes to a melodramatic limp (the most obvious example being during the novel’s first scene of conflict, in Chapter 4, where the action is knocked from active to passive because of the descriptive language employed). Throughout the novel, there’s simply too much literary hand holding and not enough confidence in the actions and events themselves to impart the tone of a given scene. This is as much a problem with the editing as it is the writing, but it is still something that I wish had been addressed in the production of this title, as it did, on several occasions, pull me out of what was otherwise an enjoyable read.

There are a few other cracks in the plaster—a variety of references from decades past that make it difficult to pin down the when of the book (something I clued into only once text messages made an appearance in the storyline) and the incredibly quick recovery of Ash’s mother in the novel’s later chapters, not to mention the lack of hurt exhibited by Paul and Tabitha when they finally confront Ash near the end—but none so damning that they further harmed the overall experience.

The Lake and the Library is a taste of Wonderland and Neverland without ever diving so deep into any one fictional world that we lose touch with reality. Beiko’s story has a soft undertone of tragedy, revealing two loves from two different worlds, both tasked with accepting the impending end of their childhood innocence and wanting to do whatever possible to put off the inevitable. The allure of the fantastic is strong, but the story is unfortunately hampered by overly colourful writing that could have used a bit more reigning in during the stylistic phase of the editing process.

Review: Drunk Mom: A Memoir, by Jowita Bydlowska

drunk-mom>>Published: April 2013

>>Finally got around to it: May 2013

Oh, in case you’re wondering: I’m not a cocaine addict.

I prefer to drink.

You found me in the middle of my story and I happened to have just found a baggie of cocaine in that bathroom.

But honestly, I prefer drinking.

I prefer drinking to anything in the world: sex, food, sleep. My child, my lover, anything.

I love to drink. Sometimes I think: No, I am drink.

It’s like my blood. Even before I get it, I can feel it in my veins. I’m not being poetic—I can actually feel it in my veins.

It’s gold. It like little zaps of gold going through me, charging me, starting me up.

When I drink, I fill with real gold and become god-like.

So I’m not a cocaine addict. I’m a drunk.

I had been a drunk for a long time. I stopped drinking for a time, and then I started again.

***

In case it wasn’t clear from the above segment, Jowita Bydlowska is an alcoholic. That’s not a dismissive statement, but a descriptive one: Drunk Mom, a memoir spanning an unclear number of months in 2009 and 2010, is her open wound to the world—a mostly-accurate account of her relapse into alcoholism following the birth of her son and after three years of sobriety.

The book is structured as a series of episodes detailing the seemingly innocuous first glass of champagne to celebrate the birth of her son, “Frankie” (names changed to protect as much innocence as possible), spiralling quickly out of control as she reverts, in terrifying fashion, to old, destructive, dishonest habits. The catch, however, is that her behaviour this time around threatens not only herself but her son as well. She recounts the times Frankie was left unchanged, covered in his own filth, because she was unconscious elsewhere; the times she’d fall asleep drunk somewhere public while out with him; the many opportunities she took while out with her son to duck into liquor stores—her time spent with child a mere mask for her actual wants and needs.

While there is a narrative through-line to the events recounted in Drunk Mom, it often feels broken and a little disjointed—which makes sense given the somewhat ungrounded nature of the author’s memories during this period of time. She is, for lack of a better phrase, the villain of her own tale, a semi-unreliable narrator who wants desperately to get it right. Her descriptive work is blunt, a collection of straight-razor cuts bleeding all over the page with little care to how messy or horrible it might look to the casual observer. She can’t be worried about something like that; her concern is getting it out in any way possible, documentary-style—harsh, often without emotion.

Reading Drunk Mom was an unexpectedly emotional journey. While I understand alcoholism to be a true addiction, a disease in some ways (though the term is sometimes rejected as it implies there is a “cure” to a facet of an individual’s personality), it was hard, given the risk to her son, not to feel at times angered or disgusted by Bydlowska’s actions and the logic workarounds and lies upon lies she managed to concoct. This is due in part to her personality, which is minimized throughout. She claims several times that she is numb, locked inside of her self. Intentional or not, this is accentuated by her writing style, which itself is sparse and staccato and without a sense of self behind the words. More often than not the book felt as if narrated by a disembodied spirit—that the only way for her to put it all on the page was to distance her self from it. Granted that’s an assumption, and in many ways the drink itself IS her personality, but there is a certain obvious amount of distance, of handling the past with rubber gloves on so as not to be re-infected by it. The result of this is a memoir that reads less like a confessional and more a begrudging recitation, unfortunately limiting the amount of sympathy I felt for her and everyone involved.

Despite all that, when the author reflects on a possible sexual assault in Montreal, or attempts to understand how it is she broke her toe, and is unable to remember such things due to the severity of her blackouts, it’s hard not to feel frightened for her safety, and for the longevity of any future sobriety achieved.

There’s a rather multi-faceted dichotomous relationship between the author, herself, and everyone in her life: she loves her family and hates them, says they’re good people and they’re not; she accepts she needs help and wants it, yet is hostile to the idea of it (even after AA has proven itself and saved her life and her relationship with her boyfriend and son, she still looks to it with a bit of open disdain, citing the pledge at the end of each meeting as “a silly ritual but it gives the illusion that we’re in this together, before we go out into the world again, outside of the twelve-step walls.” She spends half her time viewing the system that has saved her life and will continue to do so, as well as those dearest to her, as a leash tied around her neck and not the solid ground beneath her feet. Which, again, is part of the addiction and/or disease. So, as I said: dichotomous.

Drunk Mom is a case study in hitting absolute rock bottom and anteing up again, repeating the process until that moment of clarity hits and the body and mind finally decide to wash out every pent up emotion and poison trapped inside, chorusing “it’s time, get your shit together and let’s make things right again.” It’s not an easy book to want to read, and in spite of knowing things would turn out okay (because, after all, she’s around to write the tale), it was often difficult to want to follow through or show sympathy towards a character who, for much of the book, seems like she might spit on you were you to express care or concern for her wellbeing. And though I struggled throughout to know whether the author was ever trying to elicit a sympathetic response, and continue to do so even after finishing the book, I can’t deny that Bydlowska’s account of alcoholism, addiction, and borderline self-annihilation is an eye opening and in some ways necessary experience.

Review: Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

life-after-life>>Published: April 2013

>>Finally got around to it: May 2013

She knew that voice. She didn’t know that voice. The past seemed to leak into the present, as if there were a fault somewhere. Or was it the future spilling into the past? Either way it was nightmarish, as if her inner dark landscape had become manifest. The inside become the outside. Time was out of joint, that was for certain.

She staggered to her feet but didn’t dare to look round. Ignoring the awful pain, she ran on and on. She was in Belgravia before she finally flagged completely. Here too, she thought. She had been here before. She had never been here before. I give in, she thought. Whatever it is, it can have me. She sank to her knees on the hard pavement and curled up in a ball. A fox without a hole.

***

Ursula Todd was born on a cold and snowy February 11 in 1910. She died before she could take a single breath, the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck. She was born again. On February 11, 1910. This time, she was saved. She will die again, somehow, at some point, and the cycle will continue with details—both critical and inconsequential—shifting, facilitating different outcomes and different interactions between family, friends, loved ones, and the young love interest of a particularly anti-Semitic dictator.

The semi-mythical protagonist of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life has lived and died an entire country’s worth of lives. Born in Britain in a home dubbed Fox Corner, Ursula’s life is mysteriously and inexplicably touched by the hand of fate. Each time she is (re)born the deck is shuffled anew. Certain events play out in almost identical fashion in each successive stream (or universe, or timeline, or however one chooses to rationalize or not rationalize the narrative conceit), and the presence of specific individuals or details in one life might spell her end, while in another she might be saved from drowning, or from leaping from a window to her death—again, depending on which factors are present or not.

It’s an interesting premise, but one I feel was not entirely capitalized on. The very idea of multiple or repeating lives is science fiction and/or fantasy in nature, yet the tone of the book is decidedly grounded, indeed almost to a fault. As in life, many of Ursula’s deaths are not dramatic, and some causes are not even entirely clear, but it is in the small shreds of déjà vu she experiences where one hopes the story would take a quicker, more abrupt turn to embrace the elements of the fantastic it occasionally flirts with. Perhaps this is unfair and not at all what the author intended, but it is in this selection from the novel’s jacket copy where the divide between what’s teased and what’s given is most egregious:

For as she grows, she also dies, repeatedly, in a variety of ways, while the young century marches on towards its second cataclysmic world war.

Does Ursula’s apparently infinite number of lives give her the power to save the world from its destiny? And if she can—will she?

Of course, one shouldn’t believe everything they read in advertising copy, but the relatively small amount of what’s written on the book’s jacket highlights Ursula’s potential, her dramatic, possibly history-altering purpose in a way that is not adequately paid-off in the book—at least, not until too close to the conclusion to have a strong impact. Instead Life After Life is mostly a rather provincial tale of do-overs, examining the many ways one life can change—or fail to change—the world.

It’s in this provincial British reality and its various mundane excursions and day-to-day operations that the novel’s premise unravelled for me. The details and artifice suffocate both characters and narrative flow, often grinding the story to a crawl in the middle of the book, and not picking up steam again until the section “A Long Hard War.” Some characters do stand out—Izzie, Crighton, and Teddy are the most memorable—but most are difficult to penetrate thanks to the many ways aspects of their personalities are either repeated or washed over as a new stream of life begins.

That’s not to say it’s troublesome all the way through. The inevitable death-march of war crushes all equally; it’s fascinating to see the many possibilities of one life splintered by this war that changed the face of the world. It’s also frustrating, at first, to see Ursula as less a part of history and more steamrolled by it—that is, until the last fifty to one hundred pages, when the modicum of awareness she has of her previous lives influences her to take charge and attempt to change the future of the world for the better. Only when the psychological impact of her circuitous, ouroboros-like life becomes relevant does the story feel at last as if it is coming into its own.

The novel’s unspoken thesis is not how Ursula dies, but how damaging it is to have her removed from the lives of others. When in later chapters we see the positive impact she has on those around her, it’s unsettling to go back and imagine the dark turns her family’s lives might have taken in the streams where she died young, whether from illness or spousal abuse (a particularly harrowing segment) and how her deaths might have shattered their remaining days. Life After Life is in some ways a theatre of their imaginations, as if her nearest and dearest were gathered together, speculating on the myriad ways she might have changed the world had she not died from the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck at birth, or from any one of the other ways Atkinson thought of to bring about Ursula’s untimely end.

I wanted to like Life After Life so much more than I did. The conceit is wonderful, and the novel’s structure and how it tackles multiple lives via repetition and transposition—repeating bars of the same song but in different octaves, or different keys altogether, to changing, but always deadly results—is undoubtedly unique. However, its ambition, the sheer scope of its narrative, feels lacklustre and muted. To put it in reductive terms, it was more intriguing than it was enjoyable. In the end, I must concede that I don’t feel I am this novel’s audience. I was attracted to it through the premise advertised on the book’s jacket, but feel there to be a stark divide in the tone promised and what was ultimately delivered—in short, my expectations trumped reality. Take from that what you will. This is not a bad or poorly written book by any stretch—its tone and flavour were simply not to my liking.