Friday, September 30, 2011

Josh Ritter, Bright’s Passage, 2011.

This blog is meant to be a journal: it’s a place for me to reflect on the book I read. At times that means entries are akin to reviews, with jottings to help me remember the book if I struggle to recall it; other times, I’m trying to work through ideas. With this novel, though, both tasks are made more complicated because of my fan-boy-ish adulation of Josh Ritter as a musican, song-writer, and story-teller. I’ve loved Ritter’s music since I first heard “Come and Find Me” as the end credits rolled on an episode of “Six Feet Under” many years ago: I rushed out and bought Golden Age of Radio the next morning.

There’s a rush of language in Ritter’s lyrics that delights and entrances. Sometimes the lyrics are almost cryptic (‘I keep you in a flower vase / with your fatalism and your crooked face / with the daisies and the violet brocades’); at other times, the narrative is funny and engaging (‘At this, Sir Galahad got angry, / “Angel,” he said, “don’t you tempt me. / I wish to go to heaven and not to hell. / So when stable boys look lonesome, / when the women call me handsome, I’ll hold me virtue very firmly by myself.”’). There’s an interesting tension between agnosticism and ire at God that’s frequently expressed as in “Thin Blue Flame” (‘If God’s up there he’s in a cold dark room / the heavenly host are just the cold dark moons / He bent down and made the world in seven days / and ever since he’s been a’walking away’) and the ever-stunning “Girl in the War” ('... the keys to the Kingdom got lost inside the Kingdom / and the angels fly around in there but we can’t see them / I got a girl in the war Paul I know that they can hear me yell / if they can’t find a way to help her they can go to Hell'). And yet, the cadence and rhythm of scripture express themselves in deeply positive ways, too, as in the brilliant (and Paul Simon-influenced) “Lark”: ‘I am assured, yes I am assured yes / I am assured peace will come to me / A peace that can yes surpass the speed yes / Of my understanding and my need’.

Why go through those examples? Well, it’s impossible for me to read Bright’s Passage except through the lens of Ritter’s music that I have listened too so often and so carefully for a number of years now. Playful language, careful story-telling, and a deeply ambiguous sense of the numinous are as present in his first novel as they are in his songs.

Bright’s Passage follows Henry Bright. Just back to his home in West Virginia after serving in the First World War, Bright is coping with the death of his wife, Rachel, and his son’s birth as the story begins. That coping is complicated by an angel inhabiting the body of a horse who keeps giving Bright directions, and then made worse by the pursuit of both a nasty fire and the malicious father and sons of Bright’s dead bride. Interwoven with this story in the present is the story of Bright’s experiences fighting in France.

The writing is vivid and evocative in both time periods, and well-crafted. It’s spare, and uses details that make sense to Bright. The first sentence opens with the true freight of the book: “The baby boy wriggled in his arms, a warm, wet mass, softer than a goat and hairier than a rabbit kit.” (3) This novel is about life and death and possibility, simultaneously attached and disconnected to the world that never does run away. The opening of the second chapter—a switch from West Virginia to France—functions similarly:
Mud and water and the stumps of trees. In every direction that was all there was. Bodies fell, but the trees died standing up. Nightly they were crucified upon themselves by the zip and whine of machine guns, their leaves corroded by gas, their branches and trunks hacked for kindling, some roots cut by entrenching tools, others drowned by the ceaseless, steady dripping of blood and rain. (13)

There’s an obvious contrast between the crucified trees—and the entire passion that is the war—and the new birth of his son into an uncertain future that is the central tension of the novel: how can Bright enter a new future, leaving behind the cruelty and pain of the past? It’s a question intensified by the dubious quality of his memory, when we read of him seeing Rachel’s brothers cruelly kill fellow soldiers despite our certainty from our perspective as readers that they’d not have been in France. Bright is like a blind man, running unseeing from a terror that’s hunting him to a future that he’s unable to see. All is made worse by this peculiar angel with his own agenda—and angels are never easy or felicitous creatures in Ritter’s work! (I really do love the brilliance and humour of “Galahad” that offers another great example of why angels are to be feared, if they’re Ritter’s creations.)

It’s an impressive first novel, perhaps precisely because of Ritter’s care and practise of story-telling in so many other genres. It has some infelicities—it’s heavy-handed at times, and the ending is a little over-easy—but they’re easy to overlook whether you’re as fond of him as I or not. I’m looking forward to hearing what others make of it.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Terry Fallis,
    The Best Laid Plans,2007.
    The High Road, 2010.

Fallis’s two comic novels follow Daniel Addison and erstwhile professor of English who can’t quite escape his life as a former political aide. At the beginning of The Best Laid Plans, we meet Addison: tired of the cynicism of professional politics (and escaping the ruins of a tarnished relationship), Addison leaves the Liberal party’s Leader’s office to work at the University of Ottawa. Determined to make a clean break, his final act for the party will be to find a candidate and run the campaign for the constituency of Cumberland-Prescott: a riding that’s never varied from its deep-blue Conservative tendencies. As Addison finds an apartment to rent in the yard of the hovercraft-building, chess-loving, English-grammar-excessively-pedantic Engineering professor named Angus McLintock, he also makes a deal: Addison will teach English to Engineers, and McLintock will run for the Liberals (with no lawn signs, campaigning, etc.) against the widely loved Conservative finance minister. Hilarity ensues, both within and without the corridors of power, and the second book continues the adventures of Addison and McLintock.

They’re both funny books. High-minded and idealistic about the capacity of politicians to work for the betterment of the nation, there are clunky moments and widely unbelievable plot points (the set piece with the hovercraft and the drunken First Lady of the United States!). I’m certain that Angus would find much more meaningful censure at the hand of the leader of his party than he experiences, in both books, despite his supposed popularity. There’s an overuse of fart jokes. And yet, for all of my quibbles, the quips and set pieces are funny. One can easily see why The Best Laid Plans won the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour in 2008. The idealism is reminiscent of The West Wing, and the lasting and exciting myth of politicians who are themselves idealistic is captivating and hopeful.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Jon Ronson, The Psychopath Test, 2011. I came into a loan of this book quite fortuitously. I'd heard Ronson interviewed on The Sound of Young America and on This American Life within a week or so of one another, and was intrigued. A friend happened to have it on her desk when I was visiting, and since she won't have time to read it for a space, she loaned it to me. It's almost as though I was meant to read it.

Ronson is an entertaining and engaging writer, though a tad sporadic: there are times when his stories about his own neuroses are a meaningful help to his argument, and times when I found them off-putting. That statement may be an expression of taste: I didn't mark examples to share. The story begins when he's contacted by a neurologist about a mysterious manuscript that's been sent to a number of different scientists, all of whom are unable to decipher it. Ronson's skills as an investigative journalist help him to find the author, and lead him into musings about sanity and a variety of challenges in mental health. Those musings lead him to an interest in psychopathy, the focal point of the book. He tries to make sense of psychopathy's definition, how it is diagnosed, how it is treated, and how psychopaths live in the world. His exploration includes a look at the history of psychology, and more general issues as well. Much of the book revolves around Bob Hare and his work--the development of the test for psychopathy, and the workshops on how to use it. I was deeply amused as Ronson uses the test with a CEO best-known for firing many, many people, to assess the prevalence of psychopathy in the corporate world. These explorations aren't just funny set pieces, mere side-notes to the argument, but are a marvellous way of exploring Ronson's increasing discomfort with the assessment of psychopathy and the label in general.

It's as he engages Scientologists and their attacks on psychiatry that Ronson's book reveals something just as fascinating as his subject matter: his own struggle as a journalist to maintain objectivity while entering into relationships that will help him engage in his research. The encounters with Tony--an incarcerated diagnosed psychopath--and Brian, a scientologist campaigning against psychiatry, are compelling and very well-written. We see it again in Ronson's depiction of his relationship with Bob Hare: though never studied as self-reflectively as that with Tony, it's even more intriguing, and we're left wondering about a certain level of monomania.

All in all, it's an unsettling book. I enjoyed it, but was left even more concerned than when I began it about how mental health labels are used, particularly in relationship to criminal justice issues. The only resolution I came away with was to decide to add The Men Who Stare at Goats to my to-read list.