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There has been a photo doing the rounds on the Internet showing citizens of Magnitogorsk hanging out by some graffiti-strewn wall that overlooks the city. There are three women, drinking and smoking, and in the foreground, a small child runs past the photographer. Perhaps one of the women is the mother of the child. The photo rather invites that interpretation—it wants to provoke a judgment. How irresponsible to be drinking in front of a kid! In the background is the city. Smoke belches from countless chimneys, the sky is the colour of ashes—the stereotypical depressing spectacle.
Even though the photo doesn’t exactly make my spirits soar, it does elicit a feeling in me that… well, how can I describe it? It couldn’t be nostalgia—not for a place I’ve never even visited. No, the feeling is one of yearning. North America used to have scenes of hellish industry like this, and now they’re almost all gone. The economy looks so sanitary nowadays—it’s all Wal-Marts and Office Depots and multiplexes and Starbucks. If you’re poor and trashy, you’re supposed to hide it and feel awful about yourself. And being a worker involves so much smiling. It’s unbearable.
I visited Poland once. In cafes, restaurants, and at the airport, they rarely smile at you. It’s glorious! I hope they keep it up. It’ll be a sad day if they ever import our soulless cheerfulness.
Magnitogorsk is another place I’d like to visit. If only I could speak Russian! I’d go to the bar and watch people get drunk and try to listen to as many stories as possible. Even if life looks tough in that photo, I am confident there would be laughs in Magnitogorsk! I’d put money on it.
I imagine bringing a beautiful mail-order bride from Magnitogorsk to my home in North America. At first she might be happy. The air here would be clean and we could go walking down by the river and admire the blue water. We could visit all sorts of eating places that are not too pricey and that serve an appetizing meal. For her birthday, all the wait staff would bring out a cake and sing to her! We could go to the shopping malls and buy her necklaces and sweaters. We would hold hands in the movie theatre and share a Coke and a popcorn!
But I imagine, after a few years, that the smile on my mail-order bride’s face would become somewhat strained. She’d lose that initial euphoria. There would be moments when she’d dearly miss Russia. She’d go back for visits more and more often. We’d start to bicker. I’d yell, “We simply can’t afford for you to go back a second time this year to Magnitogorsk! There’s no way! Not on my income!”
After clearing all the usual bureaucratic hurdles, my mail-order bride would find herself a job—maybe cleaning linen in a downtown hotel. Then the true reality of North American life would sink in! She’d find herself in a windowless food court every noon hour, trying to choose between a donair, a Greek salad, or a burger and fries. Or if we lived more abstemiously, she’d be unwrapping a cheese and tomato sandwich from greaseproof paper. She’d text me: don’t forget to buy more cat litter on the way home. That box is starting to stink!
She’d come to my Christmas staff party and I’d go to hers. One of my co-workers would flirt with her a little too much. “That accent is so sexy!” he might well think to himself. At her Christmas party, I’d get drunk and on the way home I’d make fun of people. “That mole on Julie’s temple is like a second head!” I’d smirk. And then my mail-order bride would get protective. “Julie is a good friend,” she would say. “She covered my shift when I was too depressed to work.” “What do you mean you were too depressed to work?” I’d ask her. See, it’s in moments like this that the truth sneaks out! “You told me you had stomach cramps.”
“No, I was depressed, and I’m still depressed now,” she would reply. “More than ever. I thought North America was the promised land but it’s hardly that! I don’t want to work anymore, but if I stop working, I’ll be even more bored than ever—and I’ll never get to see Magnitogorsk, not, as you say, on your income. I used to spend my whole life wanting to be in another place, and now it’s no different. I miss the view over Magnitogorsk, I miss those women I used to drink with, smoke with, laugh with! We understood each other. We understood it was useless to work hard. There is no future in it! But here in North America, everyone is always talking about working hard to get to a better place. Julie says, ‘We’re saving up for a condo.’ Marco says, ‘I’m getting a new car next year.’ It’s always the same conversations. When there’s a staff party, everyone has two drinks and says thank you to Mr. Tremblay, the boss, and then goes home. We all act so nice to Mr. Tremblay, and smile at him, but it’s all fake. I get in trouble when I don’t smile. It’s ridiculous. For eleven dollars an hour, they think they can buy a smile! No amount of money will pay for my smile!
“You know what? You will never have the obedient, good natured wife you pined for. You thought I’d be forever overjoyed and grateful to you for saving me from Magnitogorsk. Well, we should have done this the opposite way around. I should have brought you to Magnitogorsk and saved you from North America!”
This is how I imagine my experience with a Russian mail-order bride.
And so I will go to Magnitogorsk instead. I will find a wife there and we will live with her aging parents. I’ll tell her tales of North America—of the wide-open spaces, the Rocky Mountains, the all-you-can-eat buffets, and the view from the top of the CN Tower. I’ll have a lifetime of stories to tell. When my savings are starting to run out, I’ll get an honest job in the steel mill. I’ll lift heavy machinery and get strong. I’ll smoke cigarettes with black tobacco inside. I’ll sneak a flask of vodka into my overalls. I will work hard and my wife and I will live on the promise of one day visiting North America. I’ll tell her about all the things we can do. “We’ll shop at Macy’s! We’ll see a show on Broadway! We’ll do a tour of the Napa Valley and get drunk in somebody’s wine cellar!”
At night, we’ll hold each other and watch through the window as the light turns from white to grey to black. The snow will start falling, illuminated in the exterior streetlight. There will be stray dogs barking and cats howling at each other. We will never venture out past nine because at such an hour only thieves and rapists walk the streets. In the room next door, we’ll hear her father’s hacking cough. He’ll be dying of emphysema, having repeatedly refused his wife’s pleas to stop smoking. In Magnitogorsk, no one will be happier than us.
Top photo: @REUTERS Sergey Karpuhin
Many years ago, I didn’t have as much money as I do now. In fact, I had very little money.
I accumulated a lot of money by being talented and charismatic.
To be quite frank, there is no human that is better than I am.
When I say I am “better,” I am referring to my skills in a large range of human activities, including having sex with women.
No one is better at having sex with women than I am.
I am also very good at making rhymes.
For example, I can rhyme the word “ho” — which is an abbreviation of “whore” — with the word “mo” — which is an abbreviation of “more.”
Did I mention that I am talented and charismatic?
My penis is very big.
Women enjoy being made love to by me. They enjoy the size of my penis.
I smoke large marijuana cigarettes at the same time as making love
In fact, it is safe to assume that I am always under the influence of a controlled substance
My senses are so impaired that I do not even know what I am saying right now!
There is one last thing I want to make perfectly clear:
if you are jealous of me and attempt to disrupt my activities,
you will become the object of my considerable anger.
I will beat you with my bare hands or I might even shoot you with a gun.
This is something that is necessary to do when you are a talented and charismatic rapper.
When I have sex with a woman, I do not make myself emotionally available.
Often I compare myself to a famous athlete, such as Muhammad Ali.
Did I mention that I am talented and charismatic?
My penis is very big.
This is a very short piece of fiction I worked on recently.
He remembers the faces of the drinkers toward closing time. Tough faces with stares fixed on the far distance. He would try to maintain a conversation with the men for a while, but inevitably things would degenerate.
“That motherfucker over there cold-cocked my buddy.”
“It’s OK, James, he’s leaving.”
“If no one else will deal with it—”
Outside there were often blinking blue lights thrown against the walls of the bar, and someone being loaded into an ambulance. He kept his distance and asked himself questions to which there would be no answers. Which of those people were in the fight? How badly is that guy hurt? How is his face going to look in the morning?
One night, he went to the bathroom and saw a drunk guy who had fallen over into a pool of urine on the floor. The guy’s pants were pulled down and he couldn’t get up.
“Peace! Peace!” the drunk yelled. Or maybe it was, “Please! Please!”
It was important to not look at the shriveled part between the drunk’s legs.
“Do you need help?” he asked.
Before he could figure out what to do, somebody else came into the bathroom. Now the drunk had an audience of two. The newcomer asked, “What happened?” “I just found him like this,” he replied, finding himself strangely proud to be the one on his feet, the one who could handle his drink. The newcomer said the drunk on the floor was a fucking embarrassment and he was going to get the bouncer to do something about it, but not before taking a piss.
During the day, there were no longer any crowds on the street, just lots of traffic. Young men would pass by in trucks that cost more than a down payment on a new house. He knew they worked hard for a living but he still had uncharitable thoughts. People will regret pissing away so much money on trucks and liquor. Someday I will be able to tell people, I told you so.
But now, with the perspective provided by time and space, he knows he would take no pleasure in it. Because it would be handy if there were always some place where people can go and make a bit of money. Even if so much of that money gets blown on hopeless causes at closing time.
This is the first time I have put this rather sordid story online since doing a first draft back in 2008. The intent is a synthesis of the narrative style of Franklin W. Dixon, the nom de plume of the committee responsible for the Hardy Boys books, with the misanthropy of French novelist Michel Houellebecq.
Frank and Joe Hardy, two teenagers living in the United States of America in the mid-part of the twentieth century, approached the seaside town of Bayport, their home since childhood. They were rolling along in their bright yellow convertible and enjoying the view of Barmet Bay. Suddenly Frank spotted several homeless men, most of them in their elder years, down by the wharf.
“That fellow looks like he’s lost all will to live,” he remarked.
Joe turned to look at where Frank was pointing. He saw a figure resembling an old sailor, wearing tattered clothing and sporting a menacing grimace. Suddenly, the sailor set upon a younger homeless person with a knife.
“Frank, look!” Joe cried, impetuously. “We must do something!”
Frank shook his head.
“I’m not so sure about that,” he said. “Given the entrenchment of American laissez-faire capitalism, intervening in this case would accomplish practically nothing. I would recommend we turn a blind eye to the sufferings of the lower social orders, whose status is immutable, and distract ourselves with hedonistic pursuits. Look, there’s a brothel down by the bay.”
Joe nodded his head, conceding that Frank was probably correct. Their convertible came to halt outside the brothel. Lurching out of the ramshackle door was saw their friend Chet Morton. He was clutching a jelly donut.
“Hey guys,” he cried out. “I had a whale of a time in there, and what’s best about it, they gave me a free donut!”
Frank and Joe laughed at jolly old Chet. As a boy, the Hardys’ affable friend had been repeatedly beaten by his father and made to clean the toilet bowl with his tongue. Chet’s father had instilled in his son intense feelings of shame and inadequacy. Food, compulsive eating, and masturbating were his only consolations now he was an adult.
“How much for half an hour in there?” inquired Joe eagerly, pointing inside the brothel.
“Only five bucks!” exclaimed Chet, excitedly. “It’s a steal.”
The boys bid Chet farewell and then entered the brothel. They only had a total of four dollars and twenty cents left after a weekend of camping in the Fortress Mountains (investigating a lumberjack who had kidnapped his sister) and so the boys were obliged to forcefully negotiate a discount for the services of a whore. At one point, Frank even threatened to have his father shut the brothel down.
“Alright, alright!” said the monkey-faced man at the front desk. “Four bucks it is, but you’ll have to share.”
Frank and Joe ascended to a dimly lit and dusty room where a whore awaited them on a bed. She laughed when she saw them.
“You two look like brothers,” she said.
“We are brothers,” Frank retorted. “I’m Frank and this is Joe. We’re the Hardy Boys.”
Suddenly the whore turned white, as if she’d seen a ghost.
“I don’t know nothing about that little boy that went missing,” she protested. “I was out of town when it happened.”
Frank turned aside and whispered furtively to Joe. “I suspect foul play here. I don’t believe for one second that she doesn’t know anything about this alleged little boy. Let’s just proceed as if we suspect nothing and see if she inadvertently lets slip a clue or two.”
“Clever sleuthing,” Joe agreed.
The two boys proceeded to strip naked and took it in turns thrusting into the whore, who groaned with pleasure. The noise was loud enough to wake up somebody who was stashed away in the nearby closet. This person banged on the door loudly. “Hold on a minute,” said Frank. He investigated the mysterious locked closet door, kicking it open. Inside he found… a little boy!
“I don’t know nothing about him!” shrieked the whore.
“Likely story,” said Joe. “That must be the little boy who disappeared on the night of April seventeenth after his tricycle was found at the bottom of Bullsblood Gulch. What are you doing with him?”
“OK, OK… I’ll confess everything,” said the whore. “The truth is, he’s my illegitimate son. I had to hide him to protect myself from the wrath of my father.”
Frank nodded. “I knew it,” he said to Joe. “Also, notice how centuries of Catholicism have instilled oppressive feelings of guilt in this young woman.” He pointed to the crucifix on the wall. He continued, “She feels unclean to have given birth to a bastard, and yet in only one decade, she will have nothing to worry about, because all vestiges of sexual morality will be eradicated by the Sexual Revolution, as well as the intensification of the commodity culture.”
“You’re right,” said Joe.
“Mommy!” cried out the little boy. He ran to the whore and threw his little arms around her neck.
Frank and Joe laughed.
“Well, Joe, it looks like we’ve solved the Mystery of the Missing Bastard Son.”
“You’re right,” said Joe. “Now where’s that donut Chet promised?”
n+1 and Jacobin were established in, respectively, 2003 and 2009. Both are based in New York City. I occasionally rave about how great these magazines are to friends, co-workers, and anyone else that will listen, and am often surprised when people don’t know what I am talking about. These magazines have a cultural reach that extends far beyond their home city. Sheila Heti, author of How Should a Person Be? was supported early on by n+1, and to some extent because of that nod, is now rightly feted all over the world, not just here in her mother country. As for Jacobin, a profile of its founding editor in The New York Times and a guest column in The Guardian still haven’t made the magazine a household name like Harper’s, The New Yorker, or Atlantic, but I am hopeful one day that will change.
In my opinion, those left-leaning magazines of our parents’ generation aren’t working hard enough for our subscription money. Harper’s is written by curmudgeons who care about the right issues but don’t offer any real hope that the world will get any better; The New Yorker is written by folks who can’t decide if they care about the world just so long as their impressive cultural capital is acknowledged; and Atlantic is written by folks who flat out don’t care about the world just so long as as they can provoke some controversy and keep people reading. (For a scathing indictment of Harper’s and Atlantic‘s track record pertaining to women and feminist issues in particular, read n+1‘s Intellectual Situation from Issue 15.)
I’m not arguing here that everyone subscribed to the previously-mentioned liberal magazines should feel deep shame and switch their subscriptions forthwith to n+1 or Jacobin. I’m arguing that if you want to show some solidarity with young people striving to ensure that the mostly barren North American cultural landscape offers at least a few oases of solace, and if you want literature and criticism that provokes chatter that matters, the priority spending in your magazine budget should be with n+1 or Jacobin. (And a subscription to Canada’s very own maisonneuve or Walrus would be a jolly good idea too. Be a big spender!)
Recently, Jacobin posted almost all of its latest issue online as a sort of experiment, hoping that despite giving away free content, readers would financially support the magazine anyway. I, for one, “rushed” to the subscription webpage and forked out my $30 immediately, having already enjoyed Jacobin for free for several years. And boy, was I glad I did! Issue 10 contains an excellent analysis of the American car industry after the bail-out, a look at the successful Chicago teachers’ strike versus the not-so-successful strike by New York school bus drivers, and so much more, all in erudite but accessible prose. Articles of this sort offer many advantages over the daily grind of world atrocities that you get through the newspapers. They give a “big picture” view of the various ills of our times (i.e. the ongoing collapse of the manufacturing sector); they offer useful insights into political strategy; and most importantly (to my mind anyway) they help leftists to not feel so alone. These magazines understand the economy and society that we inhabit in a way that older magazines do not. They understand the uneasy compromises so many of us make, wanting to work on projects that are personally fulfilling, but needing also to make money, wanting to make a difference in the world, but needing not to be thrown into prison for the cause of the season. In a nutshell, these magazines understand the constraints we operate under, and rather than throw up their hands with despair, they offer hope that a growing cohort of organized people might support each others’ progress in this world and thereby eventually change things.
n+1 gave the Occupy movement a broadsheet to read while agitating in the streets of New York. Jacobin organized a panel discussion at the same time and incurred the wrath of Fox News.
As I approach my middle years, trying in my own way to answer Sheila Heti’s question How Should a Person Be?, I am certain of few things, but here is one. Good projects deserve support. As a cultural producer myself, albeit a very novice one, I cannot accept that “Free Culture” means that people spend money on hair cuts or on organic meals in family-owned restaurants but will get their “content” without spending a dime. YouTube evenings are fun, and I’ve enjoyed my fair share of cultural events organized via Facebook, but someone eventually will have to pay the “content producers,” and I think that somebody should be, insofar as I’m capable, me. And others like me. If we don’t pay them, who will? Apple? Google? PBS? The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation?
Furthermore, a desire for a bigger audience for a new magazine is not tantamount to “selling out” or compromising the message. In the 1920′s and 1930′s, “Emanuel Haldeman-Julius, an atheist-Jew, socialist, and newspaper publisher, and his wife, Marcet, set out to publish small low price paperback pocketbooks that were intended to sweep the ranks of the working class as well as the ‘educated’ class. Their goal was to get works of literature, a wide range of ideas, common sense knowledge and various points of view out to as large an audience as possible.” [Source, ahem, Wikipedia!]
This project became known as Little Blue Books, a series of classics in literature, philosophy as well as feminist and socialist tracts that reached millions. I don’t think it can be entirely coincidental that the 1920′s and 30′s were also decades of considerable socialist ferment and unrest.
I am going to end this blog with a lengthy quote from the latest Intellectual Situation in n+1, entitled “Cultural Revolution,” which provides a fairly succinct guide to three possible futures in the face of “the mounting economic insecurity of intellectuals and ‘culture producers’ amid a general population scoured by the same blast…”
One possibility, and the worst, would be to see the next decades exacerbate the class character of culture. In this scenario, since very few people not already wealthy would risk careers as writers or artists, certain vital strains of culture would become, more exclusively than today, the expression of an upper-class stratum. A basic relegation of literature, art, and philosophy to pastimes of the idly rich (as, say, in pre-revolutionary France) doesn’t seem impossible.
A second possibility, closer to realization today, would be the confinement of important varieties of culture not to a single socioeconomic stratum but to demographic archipelagos amid rising seas of mass corporate product. Young people might give up hopes of gainful employment through art or serious writing — without giving up the production or consumption of those things. Holding down uninspiring and ill-paid day-jobs, they would huddle together in select neighborhoods of big cities and devote their evenings and weekends to culture (and laundry, shopping, and cleaning). This doesn’t sound so bad; it sounds in fact like the cozily disappointed existence, streaked with fear of unemployment, of half the people we know.
A more optimistic third possibility glimpses, in the dark cloud already raining on us, a silver lining of cultural revolution — of rapprochement, that is, between intellectuals and nonintellectuals, the intellectuals becoming more like workers and the workers more like intellectuals without the broadening of cultural life diminishing its liveliness or highest achievements.
My parents recently moved out of the house at 11125-23b Avenue, Edmonton Alberta and returned to England. I spent 1989 to 1993 at this address, as well as six months in 2005-2006, when I was unemployed. Well before my parents’ departure, I boxed up all the stuff I wanted from the basement and shipped it here to Montreal. There was a box of books and a box of my own writing. Everything else went to Goodwill. You can’t afford to be too sentimental about material possessions when shipping is priced according to weight.
Today I looked at a binder of my writing from the year 2000, when I would have been 25. I can see myself struggling in one story to write like my hero, Dostoevsky, and totally failing. I can see myself in another story affecting a hardscrabble tone, describing the life of people living in a trailer park. That one seems more promising, except it is clear I don’t know how such people talk.
Excerpt from “Hijackers of Desperate Hearts”
“I’ll get a nice cool one, Charlie.”
“Not until you clear up your tab.”
“Goddamit! Just one more, Charlie. You know I’m good for it.”
There is one long poem in which I have found a stanza that encapsulates a lot of the fascination I had at the time about the (possible) connection between religion and insanity.
Excerpt from a juvenile poem
a mind that’s come unstuck
from the pull of this heavy planet
and refuses to be bounded.
It lives in absolutes and eternals
every light turns on and it’s a sign from God
to walk his way
yet his way is everywhere
and you can only walk so far
before your blistered feet give up on you
and you collapse in a ditch like a derelict.
People mistake you for a bum that drank too much.
Mostly, my writing from this time reads like a plea for a girlfriend and to get laid more often. So much yearning! If I had to re-live my early twenties, I would read and write a little less and live a little more. But thankfully, I don’t have to go back to that time of life. I can use my writing more competently now as a way of embarrassing myself.
My first novel, Blind Spot, is coming out next year thanks to the fine people at NeWest Press, a publisher in Edmonton, Alberta, that has thrived in this perilous industry for over three decades. It will be available sometime between the spring and fall of 2014. The first chapter is available on my site.
I started writing Blind Spot in 2005 after a brief stint of unemployment. The unemployment is significant insofar as it gave me the time to help a friend of mine paint the exterior of a house located just off 99th street in Edmonton. That house was the inspiration for the somewhat smaller house that is the main setting for Blind Spot.
A first draft of the book was finished quite quickly but it then took a very long time to finally get the manuscript into a form that might be acceptable. In the winter of 2008, I pitched the book to four different editors at the Pitch & Shop Conference in New York City. One of the editors agreed to read it. In 2009, we met up at a cafe on Bergen Street in Brooklyn for lunch. She said she loved the book, but pronounced the main character, Luke, to be rather unlikeable, which would make the book difficult to market. I thought about this for a while. I concluded that to make Luke a different person would tear apart the whole project. And so the Luke that appears in the version that NeWest will publish is the very same Luke that I always wanted him to be: tough, lonely, manipulative, deceitful, angstful, but with a certain charm. However, thanks to that editor’s advice, Luke does have a better back story. He’s not likeable, but I think he’s more understandable.
I did a lot of revising of the manuscript, of course (and there is still more editing to be done), one of the chief results of which is a lengthy section that takes place in Montreal. In the summer of 2012, I did some polishing and then mailed the manuscript to NeWest. And now six months later, in the darkest days of winter, I have received news that is like a warm sunbeam in my heart!
There are a lot of people to thank for their help and support along the way. Chief among them is Thomas Wharton, author of Icefields, which is also a NeWest Press publication. Thomas has given me wise counsel for over a decade. Todd Babiak, author of Choke Hold, The Garneau Block, and other fine books, read an early draft and was enormously encouraging. Teena Apeles, my friend and another published author, heartily supported the project and was an eagle-eyed observer of the problematic details that I often miss.
I am very grateful, above all, to my loving wife and to all my friends and family in Edmonton, Montreal, Toronto and beyond. It’s a cliché of the writing business to say it’s lonely, and in my case, the cliché is mostly an empty one. The longer I’ve kept writing, the more wonderful people I have met. I don’t think the correlation here is false.
More news on Blind Spot once the book is imminently or currently available!
In celebration of National Novel Writing Month, I am writing about a novel that changed my life.
I first read Michel Houellebecq’s The Elementary Particles in 2004 when I was nearing the end of my twenties. The notorious misanthropist’s novel of big ideas had already provoked huge controversy in France; his follow-up, Platform, even more so. Houellebecq ended up in court, accused of hate crimes, of which he was eventually exonerated. So before reading him I had some notion of what to expect. Houellebecq’s major literary innovation had been to mount a sustained critique of advanced capitalism in the form of fiction, and in particular, to expose the sexual relations that arise in a society based on relentless competition and glaring inequities.
I was in France at the time of my Houellebecq revelation. One night I went to a nightclub in La Bourboule, a tiny town in the heart of the Auvergne. I was alone; I was a single man. Nightclubs are designed to frustrate the will of people like me. But no matter, there was a pleasant enough fellow, clearly learning impaired, sitting at the bar, and I had the chance to practice my French with him, while occasionally casting lascivious glances at the girls on the dance floor. An hour or so passed and a group of rugby players approached us and for a while made vicious jokes at the expense of my bar companion. When the rugby players turned their attention to me it was to ask if I was a homosexual who was sleeping with the learning-impaired man. They tittered at their own idiotic innuendo. When they left, my bar companion gave me the saddest and most defeated look I ever saw, as if this kind of thing happened to him every day, and announced he was leaving.
I thereupon started to drink heavily, and I approached a couple of girls to ask them to dance, but I was shot down unceremoniously each time. With a sense of rage building in my heart, I decided I’d have to at least do something reckless with my night, so I switched from asking for dances to asking for drugs, approaching the most gangsterish looking men I could find. After only five minutes I had “scored.” I left the club with a young guy who had driven up that night with a small posse from Marseille. He said he had cocaine for me. The cost would be eighty euro. I didn’t have that much on me, having left my wallet in my car.
“Go get the money, then,” he urged me.
I started walking toward my car.
“Run!” he yelled.
When I returned to the club with the eighty euro, people were spilling out onto the street and it was chaotic. It took me a while to find my drug dealer. When eventually I did so, he seemed agitated.
“There are police, let’s go over here,” he said. “Let’s make this quick.”
Sure enough, there was a squad car around the corner, its blue lights pulsing against the outside walls of the club. My heart racing at the prospect of closing this deal, I pressed eighty euro into the drug dealer’s hand, he pressed a white ball into mine, and then urged me, again, to “Run!”
Back at my car, I opened my clenched fist. Inside was a ball of Kleenex in cling wrap. This was an outrage! I marched directly back to the club. By this point, my drug dealer was locked in a passionate embrace with the most beautiful girl in the village. I called out, “Hey! You ripped me off!” The drug dealer glanced over his shoulder like I was a speck of dandruff, and then turned his attention back to the girl.
Of course, with police, gangsters and beautiful girls everywhere, I had no chance of winning my case. I went back to my car defeated.
So after having lived this very Houellebecquian moment, the following night I found The Elementary Particles, and suddenly saw all the most seemingly important themes in life – including my own life – laid bare in the most precise, funny, touching, poignant and daring prose. Here was a story that talked in a disarmingly frank tone about sexual frustration, about solitude, about shame, but also about the thrill in your chest of finally meeting somebody you care about – and about so, so much more.
The Elementary Particles follows the travails of two brothers, Bruno and Michel, abandoned by their hedonistic mother. Bruno grows up to be a moderate success materially but is perennially lonely. His attempt to find pleasure and meaning at a sort of hippy commune ranks among the most hilarious plot-lines of any novel ever written. Michel, meanwhile, is a molecular biologist, who is solving the sex problem in an entirely novel way, by developing ideas that will give rise to a race of post-humans – a perfectly harmonious new species whose members are of no gender but instead have erogenous zones all over their bodies.
The two brothers launch into protracted soliloquies about Aldous Huxley, the human genome project and consumer society. You get great memorable quotations, like, “If life is an illusion it’s a pretty painful one,” or “Tenderness is a deeper instinct than seduction, which is why it is so hard to give up hope.”
I dispatched the entirety of The Elementary Particles within 24 hours. To me it remains the most unputdownable book. It is a novel that has most definitely changed my life, teaching me that fiction isn’t simply entertainment or self-expression but a stage for dramatizing the most important ideas in the world.
Top image: Still from the 2006 German film adaptation of The Elementary Particles
I have been a very reticent blogger. I maintain my sporadic outbursts of political cynicism over at the Paltry Sapien, but here I’ve been silent. Today I’ll briefly interrupt that silence to announce that I have a new job. After 2 years and 2 months of doing some of the most interesting work of my life at McGill, I’m off to pursue new opportunities and fresh challenges at the university just down the road here in Montreal — Concordia University. Also in the “new” theme, I have a new story that I’ve put online. It’s called “The Snapping Turtle,” and it is the shortest short story I have ever written. It isn’t as short as it is because I have become lazy. This story started out nearly 5,000 words, and is now under 1,200. It isn’t at all the same story as the one I started with. Characters and plot utterly transformed by my megalomaniacal self!
I posted a brand new short story here called Fourteen, I’ve posted the Monthly Review’s excellent critique of the Internet and capitalism in the old readin’ room, and I’ve made my first blog in months at the Paltry Sapien, joining the conversation about Occupy Wall Street.
More later as time and enthusiasm permit.