REVIEWS: vol 6, issue 1

Delet This
By MLA Chernoff (Hybrid Heaven)

Reviewed by Gary Barwin

MLA Chernoff’s Delet This is a hilarious, breakneckedly snappy, and brilliant poetic debut. Dense with puns; plays-on-words; masterful registral and tonal hijinx; an array of cultural references from the Kaballah, Derrida, and Aristotle to Gogurt, Facebook, clickbait;, and Kegel workouts, it is laugh-out-loud funny, entirely absorbing, and intellectually alive, riffing with erudition, queer delight, Judaic self-deprecation, and yet sly sensitivity to the effect these complexities and contingencies have on the self.

But this wild, happysad funride has a serious purpose that is “smurf as in heck u.” Chernoff’s frenetic extemporizing explores with exhilarating inventiveness how knowledge and expression are integrally intertwined with structures of power and its technologies, whether of social media or language: “punning aside, im going to/defeat American imperialism wth MY/Griffin Poetry Prize Money;3/email me tomorrow.”

Chernoff explores how excess and error can both define us and give us agency in our mediated simulacrum of a world. They examine how the ability to surf through the Babel of culture—leaping from religious, intellectual, and “high” culture to all forms of “low” culture—enables us to locate ourselves within the larger semantic flow. From “The ‘Mark Zuckerberg Is Literally My Father Starter Pack’ Starter Pack”:

German Idealism is to Hermann Cohen
what super soakers n black leather chokers
are to my thing-harping

They triangulate experience in the language of now, referencing zip files, WebMD, pop songs, and bureaucratic, academic, commercial language, and by playing tricks with content and form. In another poem, the line “my credit card name is in th title of the pome” explains that the title does indeed give almost their whole credit card number.

They explore the energy when a variety of different satires and parodies of different tones and forms play off against each other. In “mfw i play my favey game w u,” the shape of the poem is a video-game creature with each of its two feet made out of the text:

is a
is my dang foot lmao

It’s a delectably terrible joke: the text paraphrasing CanLitYid Leonard Cohen’s famous line from Beautiful Losers is literally each “dang foot.” But Chernoff has altered the text to reference other textworlds. “Dang” and “lmao” are ironic contemporary slang. The “&&&” makes the poem into an excited stutter. They write “g-d” instead of “God.” Observant Jews use “G-d” for a variety of reasons besides the unspeakability of the divine. If the full word is written, the text can’t be discarded, except by special ritual. But Chernoff doesn’t capitalize the word, further complicating the wordplay and the permanence. 

The Jew and the queer speak their truth within their knowledge of power. And they sometimes paraphrase Derrida/Aristotle/Nietzche’s “O friends, there are no friends”: 

in any case:
o m’friendo, there is no meme!
o m’emes, there is no friendo!@
n th same can be sd of dream;
that stone cold steve,
in a hard-rockin’ pet-peeve

So to conclude, what’s the elevator pitch for this book? Imagine Adeena Karasick’s Kabbalistic, Beat-infused howleries turned into a Flarfian Finnegan’s Wake of YouTubiana, memes, and social media. Like Joyce, Chernoff has reddit all and here plays 3-D chess on the two-dimensional surface of language. It’s an invigorating and illuminating thrill ride. 

Difficult People
By Catriona Wright (Nightwood Editions)

Reviewed by Steven Beattie

The final two stories in Catriona Wright’s debut collection are about female friendships on the skids. In “Major Prude,” the relationship between protagonist Angela and her Zumba partner, Carla, is derailed when, after a night of heavy drinking, Angela’s stepbrother sexually assaults Carla. The way Wright handles this is acerbic: Carla relates the assault to Angela, who immediately begins to make excuses for her stepbrother’s behaviour. “He’s a terrible drinker,” she tells Carla. And when her friend says she intends to press charges, Angela responds, “Do you really think the police would believe you?”

Wright’s approach is to have the story narrated in the first person by Angela; everything in the piece is filtered through her perspective, including her impulse to extend to her stepbrother the benefit of every doubt—not least as a default to self-sufficiency, since he pays the rent on their shared apartment. By remaining in such close psychic proximity to the first-person narrator throughout, Wright makes the reader complicit in Angela’s betrayal of Carla, as well as ensures that the final confrontation between the two carries an even greater sting.

The title of the closing story, “Them,” refers to the preferred gender pronoun of Taylor, who has been best friends with narrator Kate since the two were children. Kate is confused by her friend’s recent decision to adopt a non-binary gender designation and hurt that Taylor does not tell her this directly; she hears about it third-hand during a house party for Taylor’s twenty-
third birthday. 

Here again, Wright employs a close first-person narration to advance the story’s central conflict indirectly; the reader is implicated in the action by being forced to determine how much sympathy to extend the central protagonist. The author also deploys an extended symbol—two pet geckos named Zeus and Hera—as a means of refracting the relationship between Kate and Taylor. At one point, Hera escapes, and in the process of recapturing it, the lizard’s tail is pulled off; the image of injury and dismemberment literalizes the internal battle roiling within Kate at the prospect of growing apart from her friend.

In both these narratives, Wright problematizes her collection’s title: which of the characters, we are forced to ask, are meant to be the difficult people? At her best, here and throughout the book, Wright dramatizes the shifting nature of this appellation. The twelve stories are united by their implication that, depending upon the particular circumstances, everyone has the capacity to be a difficult person.

This may seem like an anodyne observation, but Wright generally injects her stories with freshness by discovering interesting ways to spin her dramatic situations. In “The Unofficial Calculation Museum,” protagonist George counters his sister’s gambling addiction by stealing calculators—putatively smarter electronic devices than the slot machines his sibling adores—to create an ad hoc titular museum. “Love Lasts Forever but a Tattoo Lasts Longer” centres on a tattooist who uses “morbid ink” mixed with the ashes of dead pets and loved ones in her designs and marries a convict she meets while running a poetry-writing program for prisoners. “Olivia and Chris” is speculative fiction set in a world where affluent women no longer have babies themselves but entrust the job of carrying children to surrogates arranged by “baby brokers.”

Certain stories feel less inspired. “The Copy Editors” follows a couple of men who take it upon themselves to amend the faulty grammar on public signs; this situation has been used for similar comic effect in Lynn Coady’s Mean Boy and George Bowering’s short story “Ichiko.” The satire of corporate team-building and the jargon in the title story feel shopworn and trite. And two stories—“Content Moderator” and “Lean into the Mic”—evince very similar structures that would not seem bothersome on their own but together feel overly repetitive.

Land Mammals and Sea Creatures
By Jen Neale (ECW Press)

Reviewed by Kate Finegan

In Jen Neale’s debut novel, Land Mammals and Sea Creatures, Gulf War veteran Marty Bird’s psyche is writ large across the natural world as his daughter, Julie, attempts to keep the ghosts of his past at bay to maintain his will to live with PTSD. One of those “ghosts,” a woman who goes by JLL, shows up on the beach as Marty, Julie, and his best friend watch a blue whale beach itself. When they go to the whale, the as-yet-unidentified JLL hands Marty a bucket and says, “You can try to keep it wet for a while, if that makes you feel better.” Marty pours a few buckets onto the whale, before giving up. The whale stops breathing eventually, its death inevitable. This first chapter, which ends with an eagle and two ravens diving headfirst into a rock near the whale, leaving “a streak of gore and feathers,” is an accomplished short story in its own right and encapsulates all that is to come.

Neale won the 2012 Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers, and her prowess at short fiction shines in this novel. She has a gift for choosing impactful moments and conveying them with admirable economy. For instance, we learn that in her childhood, Julie couldn’t bear to smash junk fish. Instead, “she left them in their pail. Until they suffocated. Probably killed more than anyone else.” This idea of misplaced mercy serving to lengthen suffering by delaying death, like Marty’s attempt to keep the whale wet, is a theme returned to in the first half of the book as it shifts chapter by chapter between the present and the past in the story Marty tells Julie about his beloved dog, Midge, who changed into “some other dog walking around in her skin” after chasing an oryx into the New Mexico desert soon after Marty’s return from the Gulf.

These layered stories and the central metaphors of animal suicide give spiralling momentum to Marty’s suicidal thoughts—so, too, do the pervasive images of decay. As the whale decomposes on the beach, the people of Port Braid, BC, choke with its odour, and Marty’s mental health issues seem similarly inescapable. However, the ultimate question is not what will happen to Marty, but rather what duty we have to save our loved ones from themselves.

It’s a question not easily answered, particularly when the narrative stance largely closes off the interior thoughts and feelings of the characters, JLL takes over Marty’s and Julie’s intertwined stories until she becomes a sort of de facto protagonist. But her fatalistic, flippant attitude toward suicide, her mockery of Julie’s concern for her father, left me feeling hollow. For such a triggering topic, perhaps more care could have been taken to build empathy for Marty and Julie, rather than giving the loudest voice to a character who sees suicide as “a rational choice because it’s not getting better.”

Rich backstory, layered narratives, and skilful descriptions of nature, both picturesque and visceral make for an engrossing read. This novel is a master class in extended metaphor, but the pitfall of relying on metaphor is that it can distance the reader from key characters by setting the narrator as a barrier, rather than a conduit, to emotional connection. Nonetheless, Neale’s assured voice and singular vision shine in this debut, and I look forward to seeing what comes next.

Marry, Bang, Kill
By Andrew Battershill (Goose Lane)

Reviewed by Kristin Valois

The second novel from British Columbia writer Andrew Battershill, Marry, Bang, Kill, follows Tommy Marlo, a street-smart petty criminal who likes to remove his glasses so he can’t see the faces of the people he mugs on the street. When the novel begins, one of Tommy’s heists leaves him with a laptop full of incriminating information belonging to a high-ranking member of a biker club. Using the info, Tommy steals a ton of money from the gang, killing someone in the process (or so he is convinced), and so he flees to Quadra Island, BC, with no real plan but escape.

The island is full of characters who aren’t easily forgotten, thanks to Battershill’s gift for fast-paced and darkly funny dialogue. A meth dealer (curiously named “Glass Jar”) muses aloud to the cop pumping him for information: “Kids have thin blood. That’s why they’re not supposed to fuck or lift weights or nothing. Because of the thin blood. Aren’t you a cop? Like, you should know this for first aid or whatever.” The dealer, a self-loathing millennial cop, a sassy well-educated twenty-something assassin, and a disgraced former cop from Chicago with a plan to save Tommy, are all given room to chew the narrative scenery. This motley crew of supporting characters is the butt of multiple good jokes such as, “The tattoo commemorated Glass Jar’s distant, but deeply held, Irish heritage.” One vengeful biker sends someone a threatening text message consisting entirely of emojis: “Knife, Gun, Knife, Gun, Gun, Shotgun, Raincloud, Shotgun, Ambulance, Gun, Gun, Knife, Pickup Truck, Thumbs up, Stormcloud.” At times, Marry, Bang, Kill reads like a screenplay, with Battershill’s dialogue endearing the reader to a cast of characters who are not particularly charming. 

Battershill doesn’t shy away from acknowledging issues of race, privilege, and substance abuse within the narrative. “You’re a white cop who shot poor black kids and ended up with a beautiful house in the Gulf Island, that’s who you are,” says Grace, the music teacher. Nearly all the characters abuse drugs and alcohol, from the meth dealer to the music teacher, and the results are neither romantic nor pretty.

References to popular television shows like Breaking Bad, Top Chef, Gilmore Girls, and the cult classic Xena: Warrior Princess are sprinkled throughout, grounding surreal characters in the here-and-now. BC readers will especially appreciate local shoutouts: the 58-minute ferry ride from Victoria to the mainland, Heriot Bay Inn on Quadra Island, and an obligatory West Coast reference to “Onterrible.” 

Odd and endearing, Marry, Bang, Kill will delight readers who relish a unique crime thriller that is far from formulaic. 

The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel that Scandalized the World
By Sarah Weinman (Knopf Canada)

Reviewed by Will Johnson

Vladmir Nabokov is a daunting literary adversary, even from beyond the grave. The celebrated Russian author of one of the twentieth century’s most controversial and celebrated works, Lolita, was loath to acknowledge his real-life influences because he felt they diminished the authority of his art. And though some eagle-eyed readers and journalists have attempted to draw parallels between his story and the abduction of an 11-year-old girl named Sally Horner in 1948, he routinely met these attempts with obfuscation and outright hostility. Were he alive today, there’s a good chance he would absolutely fucking hate Sarah Weinman’s true-crime epic The Real Lolita.

Birthed from an article appearing in Hazlitt, Weinman’s biography twins the stories of Nabokov and Horner, doggedly following their tandem paper trails and teasing out connections between the two. She demonstrates with an impressive amount of evidence the ways their lives were intertwined, despite Nabokov’s protestations. Weinman’s journalistic chutzpah is all the more impressive because she’s dealing with a crime that happened seventy years ago, spelunking through newspaper accounts and court transcripts while tracking down those who knew Horner and her captor, Frank La Salle. As it turns out, while Nabokov was happily road-tripping back and forth across the country with his wife, Vera, catching butterflies, Horner was being molested and raped by a man claiming to be an FBI agent and posing as her father. 

As writers, Weinman and Nabokov couldn’t be more different. While he never misses an opportunity to deploy an invented portmanteau, making esoteric allusions and riddling his prose with goodies for the avid rereader, Weinman’s workman-like prose plods along systematically, with no poetic flourishes or purple passages to distract the reader from the truths she’s systematically unveiling. If Nabokov is the incendiary preacher bellowing from his pulpit, she’s the careful skeptic in the front row picking apart his parables. 

Perhaps Weinman’s most impressive find is an index card scrawled on by Nabokov on which he jotted down the details of Horner’s case after reading about her in a 1952 story from the Associated Press, especially because he was in the habit of burning these index cards after transcribing them. Weinman posits that Horner’s case supplied the beleaguered author with inspiration to complete the manuscript, which he’d already attempted to burn twice. He feared that it would be controversial and misunderstood, and he was correct. In many ways, Weinman’s book is the antidote to this confusion, rightfully placing the real-life victim of this crime at the centre of the conversation.

Lolita has always been, and will always be, something of a magic trick. Readers are so thoroughly seduced by Nabokov’s narrator, Humbert Humbert, that they minimize or ignore what’s staring them in the face: the guy is a child molester, a criminal, and an asshole. Rather than reviling  him for his pedophilia, we celebrate him for his prose. And though it’s a pleasant spell he casts, truly engaging with the work means picking apart Humbert’s logic and justifications —much in the same way Weinman is wrestling with Nabokov himself, trying to give voice to a young girl nearly forgotten by history. In the era of #MeToo, she argues, there’s no excuse for ignoring Horner’s suffering and the role her experiences played in the creation of one of our most beloved novels. 

Posted on December 17, 2018 .