Dr_Martens,_black,_old

In 1988, I became a big fan of punk music — The Damned, The Sex Pistols, The Dead Kennedys, UK Subs, etc. All of these groups had, alas, already passed their prime, or disbanded, and I’d never been to any of their gigs. I lived in a small village in England that didn’t have any kind of musical venue — or in fact, a single shop. But one thing I was able to do to demonstrate my Punk Pride was, during a trip into town, buy a pair of Dr Martens boots.

Eight holes. Yellow stitching. Hot in summer. Slightly menacing!

Oh, how I loved those boots… for about eighteen months. Here’s what was cool about those boots. One, nobody else had a pair. I was the only punk in the village. Or maybe there were other punks, but they didn’t show it. Two, donning the Doc Martens was a non-conformist act! An act that could only be performed on Friday nights and weekends, because, of course, the school dress code prohibited such clonkers. Three, I had more courage when I wore my boots. Like the time I was playing indoor soccer at the Ashton-under-Hill Youth Club, and became over zealous with competitive spirit, and kicked the hand of Stewart Lemon, dislocating his finger. What a moment! Me, dislocating someone’s finger!  Lemon, the affable, tall athlete that he was, blamed the boots more than he blamed me.

Then, in 1989, I moved to Canada, and newcomer’s nerves claimed my Doc Martens. To my amazement, I was allowed to wear the boots to school, but everyone at school openly mocked them. Punk was even more out in 1989 than it had been in 1988. So I sold my boots to a skateboarder called David Ko, the only kid who had enough attitude to wear them.

Fast forward to 1992, and I became a big fan of industrial music — Skinny Puppy, Ministry, and Hilt. It was time to buy another pair of Doc Martens. This time, I went one step better, and on a trip to Germany, I bought some earrings in the shape of skulls and wore them proudly. Man, I was the real deal — in my mind!

Fast forward to now, and I’ve just purchased my third pair of Doc Martens. These ones are just a little more low key. Four-hole, black stitching, instead of yellow — but nevertheless, excellent for walking to and from work. I still feel like a bit of a non-conformist, because nowadays, most men in Montreal’s downtown core are swearing sleek, close-fitting sneakers, or dress shoes. They’re not wearing clunkers like this.

But I can be trusted with clunkers — that’s what I tell myself. My days of kicking kids in the hand are over. I still love punk, though, and I still love to bug out to this fantastic video of comedian Alexei Sayle singing an ode to Doc Marten’s boots on the 1980’s hit British comedy, The Young Ones, released during the true heyday of punk — 1983.

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Sue TownsendSometimes I think that books can never mean quite as much to me now as they did when I was twelve years old, lying on my bed, reading half of the weekend, or late into the night — even pulling out the proverbial flashlight to do so. Growing up an only child, books were intimate companions. They were how I discovered a vast world. We lived in a small English village; there wasn’t even one shop in the place. We did have a blacksmith. Every week a van passed by selling pies, milk and soft drinks. When I opened a book, I could be in Tolkein’s Middle Earth, or in America, where the Hardy Boys were solving another mystery… or I could be in the world of Adrian Mole, that adolescent just a couple of years my senior, living less than an hour’s drive away in the city of Birmingham. This was the fictional world I chose to live in more than any other. I read The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾ and its sequel, The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole, approximately 24 times. Sometimes I’d literally reach the end and immediately go back to the beginning.

I never thought much about the books’ creator, Sue Townsend. It must have — if only briefly — struck me as pretty clever that a woman was able to so convincingly inhabit the body of a teenage boy. But so gifted was she that she more or less ceased to exist to me. There was Adrian’s voice and no other.

Sue Townsend passed away April 10.

That a woman who struggled so much of her life because of illness, physical disability, single-motherhood and grinding poverty was able to create books beloved by millions says an awful lot about her strength of character, but I think it would be wrong to view her success in purely individualistic terms. She never forgot her experience of poverty; never ceased to observe and critique the system that had exacerbated it; never lost her deep sympathy for the communities that continue to live this reality right up to the current day. She was a tireless critic of Thatcherism and its legacy — the meanness, the degradations inflicted on the labouring classes, the loss of social cohesion. Her success proved that a social conscience and a deep skepticism about power and the State can inspire deeply convincing and savagely witty accounts of the human condition that become, for the reader, just as real as the read world itself.
Her forays into journalism were serious and relevant. The Guardian recently republished this gem: “How the welfare state left me and my kids scouring the streets for pennies.” This brief overview of her life is almost as moving.

RIP: Sue Townsend. She truly meant the world to me.

 

BonjourTristesseI think the quality I most admire in much of the French literature I’ve read is cruelty. From Baudelaire to Camus to Houellebecq, when the French take up the pen, it’s rarely to flatter readers. Françoise Sagan, on the basis of this, her first novel, is no exception to the fine tradition of misanthropy and cynicism that pervades prose from the Hexagon.

Bonjour Tristesse was written when Sagan was only eighteen. The novel’s leading antihero, Cécile, is seventeen. She is on holiday in the French Riviera with her father — a widower and a playboy. This being France, the holiday is a very long one — about two months. Part of the appeal of this book is realizing just how exciting a leisure-filled life can be!

The basic plot is pretty simple. Cécile’s father has been seeing a young woman—just the latest in many such affairs, we learn—called Elsa. All of a sudden an older, sophisticated woman called Anne appears on the scene—the father’s former flame, we learn. Anne manages to woo the middle-aged playboy away from Elsa, and Cécile is none too happy about it, being very possessive of her father, and unwilling to countenance the notion of a mother-figure entering her life and bossing her around. She deviously plots against Anne… with tragic consequences.

Re-reading this for the third time—cripes!—I realized just how heavily it had influenced me, years ago, when I started writing my own novel, Blind Spot. On this reading, it was a little unnerving to realize I had forgotten a significant plot feature that I—well, sorta partially stole. (The car crash. And some of the underlying causes of it. I won’t say any more!)

It’s interesting to view this novel historically, seeing how its 1954 publication date places it squarely in the epoch that the French call « les trente glorieuses » – the happy days of post-war capitalism (which, we are told, have most definitely ended, never to return). According to the dust jacket of my Pocket edition of this book, Sagan was the living incarnation of this epoch’s cardinal virtue : « le culte du plaisir. » Just as importantly, she (Sagan, and, in my reading, Cécile) also heralded the cult of youth. What is it that propels so many people forward, causing such emotional damage to others, if not the notion that there is no future, and that youth is a seemingly eternal good?

There is a beautiful and revelatory conversation between seventeen year-old Cécile and forty year-old Anne that renders this theme quite transparent :

« Anne, dis-je brusquement, me croyez-vous intelligente? »
Elle se mit à rire, étonné de la brutalité de ma question :
« Mais bien sûr, voyons ! Pourquoi me demandez-vous cela? »
–Si j’étais idiote, vous me répondriez de la même façon, soupirai-je. Vous me donnez cette impression souvent de me dépasser…
–C’est une question d’âge, dit-elle. Il serait très ennuyeux que je n’aie pas un peu plus d’assurance que vous. Vous m’influenceriez! » 
Elle éclata de rire. Je me sentis vexée :
« Ce ne serait pas forcément un mal. » 
–Ce serait une catastrophe » , dit-elle.

« Anne, I said abruptly, do you think I’m intelligent? »
She started to laugh, surprised by the bluntness of my question.
« But of course, heavens! Why do you ask? »
–If you thought I was an idiot, you’d answer the same way, I sighed. You give this impression often of being ahead of me. »
« It’s just a question of age, » she said. « It would be tiresome if I didn’t have just a little more self-assurance than you. You’d be influencing me! »
She burst into laughter. I felt perplexed.
« That wouldn’t be so bad. »
–It would be a catastrophe, she replied.

This is a quite beautiful book–melancholy and poignant. It’s the perfect companion to, say, The Elementary Particles, by Michel Houellebecq, which just as cruelly announced the end of les trente glorieuses as Bonjour Tristesse marked its beginning.

Top image : Jean Seberg as Cecile in the film adaptation of Francoise Sagan’s, Bonjour Tristesse.

Hedge Fund-Hong Kong

In recent years there has been a growing curiosity about why, in 2008, so many financial assets went up in smoke. Consequently it seems that the cultural marketplace is now more receptive to books, films, magazines—even theory—attempting to shed light on the mysterious workings of money markets. David Graeber provided a radical anthropological examination of some of the underlying issues in his book, Debt: The First 5000 Years. The Brooklyn magazine, n+1, conducted a series of very candid interviews with a hedge fund manager, and the result became Diary of a Very Bad Year. Even Margaret Atwood joined in with her witty tome, Payback. And few in North America, anyway, can have failed to see the ubiquitous posters for the new Scorsese-di Caprio collaboration, The Wolf of Wall Street.

Money has never been so big! Debt is, perhaps, even more popular!

Seeing fertile territory here, three Frenchmen have teamed up to bring us a gripping new graphic novel, part thriller and part explication of a very complicated world. Hedge Fund: Les Hommes D’Argent is volume one of a trilogy by illustrator Patrick Hénaff, author Tristan Roulot, and story consultant and co-creator Philippe Sabbah, released here in Quebec this month.

What I admired most about this work was its refusal to glorify its protagonists, while simultaneously acknowledging the intoxicating mix of risk, power and massive rewards that entice some of the world’s smartest and least scrupulous people to embark on careers in high finance. On the very cover, Hedge Fund announces an utterly different aesthetic from the posters for The Wolf of Wall Street. Scorsese’s hero is smug and handsome, foregrounded against a backdrop of revelers, many of them half-naked women. The protagonist of Hedge Fund, by contrast, is seen utterly alone in silhouette against a row of computer terminals, and beyond, innumerable tiny sparks from the windows of Hong Kong officer towers.

Hedge FundFranck Carvale is something of an everyman. When we meet him, he’s trying and failing to earn his stripes as a purveyor of high-priced insurance products. We learn that back home in France his father is embroiled in legal wranglings over 30,000 euro. Franck is essentially couch-surfing in a tiny apartment belonging to Kate, a rich former lawyer who has dedicated herself to working for a noble cause—developing prosthetics for children who are victims of landmines. At night, Franck goes out with his friend, Alex, and the duo attempt to woo beautiful air stewardesses from Cathay Pacific. Invariably they are passed over in favour of much richer men.

It’s quickly established that the financial markets of Hong Kong are fuelled by machismo and competition. At one point, a young trader called T-J has sex with a woman in front of a cheering audience. The woman is pressed over the hood of a Ferrari. The Ferrari, it turns out, belongs to an older, senior trader called Andrew Campbell. His resulting fury leads to a longstanding rivalry with T-J, which Franck is later able to use to his advantage.

Yes, this is a world of fast cars and casinos and expensive escorts. But the plot transcends mere surface glamour. It is also very interested in the workings of the system. Enter the shadowy figure of Bilkaer, an old, powerful trader who plucks Franck from relative loser-dom, polishes him up (new suit, new knowledge, new contacts) and propels him toward success. In so doing, he provides in dramatic fashion a clue (to the rest of us) as to how this seemingly abstract business actually works. His early monologue about the world of speculation is one of this book’s many gems :

Imagine une cour de récré. Il y a un gamin qui collectionne les billes. Il les a toutes, sauf une, la plus rare : la bleue ! Et il est prêt à payer un prix fou pour l’avoir, mais ceux qui l’ont ne veulent pas s’en séparer… Toi, tu la lui vendrais bien, cette foutue bille bleue, mais tu ne l’as pas. Par contre, tu sais de source sûre que le marchand de jouets va en recevoir toute une cargaison dans une semaine. Et à ce moment-là, elle ne vaudra plus rien.

On ne peut pas vendre quelque chose qu’on n’a pas. Mais on peut vendre quelque chose qu’on a emprunté. Alors tu vas trouver quelqu’un dans la cour qui va te prêter cette bille bleue, juste pour une semaine. Et là, tu vas la vendre plein pot au collectionneur… Une semaine plus tard, tu l’achètes pour trois fois rien au marchand de jouets et tu la rends au gamin qui te l’avait prêtée. Tu auras alors réalisé un énorme profit en vendant quelque chose que tu n’as jamais eu… Remplace les billes par des actions, et tu as compris le principe de la vente à découvert, la clé de voûte de toute spéculation à la baisse. Pigé?

Imagine a playground. There is a kid who collects marbles. He has all of them, except one—the rarest : the blue one! And he is prepared to pay an obscene price to have it, but those who have the blue ones don’t want to part with them… You [Franck], of course you’ll sell it to him, this fucking blue marble, but you don’t have it. However, you know from a credible source that the toy market is going to receive a shipment of blue marbles in one week. And at that point, blue marbles will become practically worthless.

You cannot sell what you do not own. But you can sell something that you have borrowed. And so you’re going to find someone in the playground who will lend you his blue marble for just a week. You sell this for a big price to the collector… A week later, you buy a blue marble for next to nothing on the toy market and you give back to the kid the blue marble that he lent you. You’ve made an enormous profit out of something you never owned… Replace marbles with stocks and you’ve understood the principle behind short selling, the key to all speculation on falling assets.

With telling explanations like these, the contributions of Philippe Sabbah–a banking expert–ensure Hedge Fund is so much more than a thriller.

Books about money are almost as difficult to pull off as, say, films about computing. An unschooled audience can feel deterred by the apparent insider knowledge required to fully appreciate the plot. But that’s never the case here. We come to better understand the system, which in no way devalues our investment in the plot, which is considerable.

Hénaff’s illustrations zero in on fraught moments—the heat of an argument, the smile of triumph on a trader’s face—while also pulling back often enough to allow us to appreciate the setting: the Hong Kong waterfront, a cavernous nightclub, a sterile airport lounge. Author, Roulot, understands the need to make the characters more than simply pawns in some kind of manic chess game, and so provides numerous illuminating details. When we first meet him, Campbell is distraught that his beloved Australian rugby team has been massacred by the hated Springboks, the national team of South Africa. «Fifteen years ago we wouldn’t have even let them on our fields, your team of Nazis!» he yells at T-J.

In this highly cosmopolitan tale, at each turn of the page the stakes get higher and higher—and Franck’s connection to productive reality becomes a little more tenuous. Without ruining any of the plot, I think it’s fair to say that by the time we see him jetting off to New York at the end of this volume, we’ve witnessed something quite spectacular. Franck’s ascendancy is based not simply on greed and ambition, but on faithfully playing his part in a system that requires profit to be made regardless of the human consequences.

Blind Spot cover

Click to enlarge

This has been a particularly exciting week in the life of my novel, Blind Spot. The super-talented Michel Vrana, who also created covers for Esi Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues and for Jian Ghomeshi’s 1982, has produced what is in my opinion a fabulous design.

I’d always felt that the cover should depict a car crash, and furthermore, that it should be pretty clear that the crash was the result of a collision with a train. So I hope I’m not being hyperbolic when I say it was a stroke of genius for Vrana to take the railway crossing sign and blow it up like a giant X — symbolic of a warning, an error, or even an overturned cross.

*

For obvious reasons (!) I’ve been thinking a lot about covers lately… My personal favourite book cover of all time is the one for The Great Gatsby. I can’t  think of any cover quite like  it, having the power to live on in a reader’s memory forever. Those eyes and lips, seemingly floating in an early night-time sky, are forever entwined in my mind with the novel itself. This Atlantic article makes it pretty clear that F. Scott Fitzgerald himself felt similarly. “For Christ’s sake don’t give anyone that jacket you’re saving for me,” Fitzgerald wrote to his publisher. “I’ve written it into the book.”

It’s perhaps fitting that Gatsby’s cover remains the most iconic, born as it was when mass marketing was hitting its stride. Many other famous books, Lolita, for example, have been approached in numerous different ways by designers with very different sensibilities. This is probably more the norm for the book world. A story is as open to as many different visual “identities” as there are people reading it. Here are a few modern takes on Nabokov’s controversial classic. I like the way the designers feel in no way encumbered by the story’s most obvious thematic.

Besides Gatsby, the other covers that are most memorable to me are the ones for J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, Michel Houellebecq’s The Elementary Particles, and Sue Townsend’s The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole.

Blind Spot is out September 2014  from NeWest Press. It’s already available for pre-order at evil Amazon.

Miall-authorphoto-1The exceptionally talented photographer, Owen Egan, who recently had a great pic of Arcade Fire’s Win Butler published in Rolling Stone magazine, took this photo of yours truly doing my best latte-sipping liberal routine.

The coffee is from Myriade in Montreal. So is the muffin. The shirt was given to me by my beautiful wife. Without her I’d still be wearing sweaters three sizes too big.

Blind Spot, my novel, is out in September from NeWest Press.

Rocky 1976

The first Rocky film was being made when I was a mere fetus. I’m only bringing this up because when you’ve only discovered the Rocky films at the age of 38, it’s rather tempting to watch the whole series for insights into just how much the world has changed over the course of your life. With a whole new spin-off film franchise in the making (no, not the fight-of-the-fossils flick, Grudge Match, but the forthcoming Creed, in which Rocky will train the grandson of his first boxing adversary) this temptation is likely only to intensify.

Rocky’s release in 1976 came at a rather dark time for America. As noted in this article, the combative but optimistic spirit of the civil rights era had all but completely fizzled out and an awful backlash had begun. A new political type was emerging: the resentful working class white male. Rocky himself is not this type; he cannot be resentful because, of course, he has a heart of gold, and is utterly committed to the ethos of individual achievement. Nevertheless, in the film’s long and unvarnished shots of gritty Philadelphia, you can see the conditions that might give rise to a certain hopelessness or anger. If you don’t somehow transcend this, the film suggests, you really are a loser and a bum.

No matter what criticism can be directed at the first Rocky or its sequels – the racism, the neo-liberalism, the naked patriotism, nostalgia and manipulative sentimentality – it would be hard to argue that these films aren’t important. It would also be hard to argue, I think, that there isn’t a heckuva a lot of talent on display here. Stallone’s screenwriting, at least in the first two films, is absolutely top-notch. The acting, not only Stallone’s but also that of all supporting stars, is naturalistic and compelling. You’ve also got to respect Stallone’s audacity. Having successfully found a studio to buy his screenplay, he insisted that only he – a total unknown – play the lead, otherwise, it was no deal. We’re talking about a man who was at the time so poor that he had to sell his beloved bull mastiff for fifty dollars.

There is a rather compelling parallel here between the rise of the fictional Rocky Balboa and the rise of Stallone himself. This probably explains why scores of tourists every day run up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and pose with the Rocky statue. Genuine rags-to-riches stories are hard to find and they don’t get much better than this.

When Rocky opens, we see our soon-to-be-hero, almost thirty, struggling against another pugilist in a small, grubby cigarette-smoke filled arena. Even though he wins the fight, the general consensus is that he’s a has-been, no longer taking on any real contenders. He’s also broke. He makes only forty dollars from his night’s work. His real job, if it can be called that, is helping an unscrupulous loan shark collect on debts.

About an hour passes and everything reinforces our initial impression that Rocky is not only a bum and a loser but also quite thick. However, one thing he most certainly isn’t is a quitter.

Rocky fancies the woman working at the pet store where he goes regularly to buy food for his pet turtles and fish. Despite the woman, Adrian, delivering about one nervous word to every fifty of Rocky’s, a romance blossoms. Adrian still lives with her brother, Paulie, one of the oddest characters I’ve ever seen in American film. Paulie is a drunk, he’s lazy, he treats his sister deplorably, and yet he’s there, with all his flaws, totally irredeemable, in all six films. He is the resentful working class white male type that Rocky never could be. I think it’s fair to say that characters like Paulie’s are rarely portrayed in film at all, let alone as unsympathetically as this.

It is, of course, rather obvious that Rocky is going to make good—that’s the whole premise upon which the film has grabbed our hearts. Yet Rocky is one of those rare films in which the fact of its happy ending at no point diminishes the intrigue of every scene. Simply watching melancholy Rocky in his squalid home talking to his fish and turtles has more entertainment value than all of the Fast and the Furious films put together. At one point, Rocky grabs the fish bowl and places it next to the terrarium so that his animal friends won’t be so lonely. Like so many moments in this film, the poignancy makes you want to cry.

When eventually Rocky gets his break, it’s from Apollo Creed, a veteran heavyweight who doesn’t have any viable opponent for the time being. So he schemes up the idea that he’ll fight a total unknown in Philadelphia on the bicentenary of America’s founding. That unknown, of course, is Rocky—his face and profile appealing to Creed as he flips through a guide of potential contenders.

This plot contrivance is the franchise’s most brilliant move, and it has to be said, nothing in the following five films can quite match it. Creed himself gives away the whole theme: it’s a shot at the American Dream. Despite these being lottery-style odds, the film still makes Rocky’s break seem inspiring to us, because, you see, he still has to work hard to cash in on his once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. There’s a lot of skipping rope, a lot of running, a lot of weights, a lot of sparring – not to mention the quitting of smoking cigarettes – to be able to stand a chance on the Big Night.

When Rocky was released to widespread critical praise and public adulation, it seemed that a new type of leading actor had emerged. Sure there had been actors who had carried movies with an impressive physical presence (Marlon Brando, most famously), but never before had an actor been defined first and foremost for his athleticism. Stallone, quite simply, became ripped. No actor had ever been ripped quite like this. Furthermore, he claimed to represent an old fashioned kind of masculinity, one that was reputed to be disappearing. He said to the New York Times:

”If macho means I like to look good and feel strong and shoot guns in the woods, yes, I’m macho…I don’t think that even women’s lib wants all men to become limp-wristed librarians. I don’t know what is happening to men these days. There’s a trend toward a sleek, subdued sophistication and a lack of participation in sports. In discos, men and women look almost alike, and if you were a little bleary-eyed, you’d get them mixed up. I think it’s wrong, and I think women are unhappy about it. There doesn’t seem to be enough real men to go around.”  New York Times.

There is a fantastic scene in which a swooning TV reporter comes in with a cameraman to record one of Rocky’s stranger training routines. He quite literally punches animal carcasses hanging from hooks. “Do you know of any other boxers who pound raw meat?” the TV reporter asks. Without even a hint of irony, Rocky replies, “No, I think I’m the only one.”

Rocky is not aware of how silly this sounds but more to the point, because he’s a real man, he doesn’t even seem to be aware of, let alone question, his sexuality. Of course he’s desirable, but to even think so would be vain. He loves his wife: that is all. And he is a fighter, that’s all he ever was and will be. This definition of masculinity, with Stallone as the standard-bearer, narrows even further as the 70’s give way to the 80’s and Arnie, Van Damme, Segal, etc. join the pantheon of the blockbuster bruisers.

But Stallone mapped this territory first, and Rocky is not a combat-robot, or simply a muscle-bound jock with an unbeatable work ethic—he feels like somebody who might have actually existed in a given neighbourhood at a given moment in time. And so his rise to the top really does seem—even if farfetched—nevertheless plausible, and it is earned. As viewers, we cannot help but cheer for him.

I can’t imagine there are many readers out there who, like me, were Rocky virgins up until the year 2014, but just in case there are, I’m not going to give away the ending of Rocky I. But I’d be remiss to not point out that after the Big Fight, one of the first lines out of Rocky’s mouth, as his beloved Adrian rushes into the ring to embrace him, is “Where’s your hat?” (Her posh hat fell off in her mad dash through the crowd). It’s thanks to lines like this that Rocky makes for such great viewing. You always think you know what to expect, because the story line is predictable, but Stallone’s writing is weird enough and specific enough to consistently serve up memorable, unrepeatable moments.

And there’s the rub. Stallone did attempt to repeat the magic of Rocky. Again and again. And so we have Rocky II (1979), Rocky III (1982) Rocky IV (1985) Rocky V (1990) and finally Rocky Balboa (2006). Stallone directed all of them except the first and the fifth one, and penned every screenplay. This is quite a body of work. In that 1976 interview, he articulates the kind of legacy he hopes for:

“I want to be remembered as a man of raging optimism, who believes in the American dream. Right now, it’s as if a big cavernous black hole has been burned into the entertainment section of the brain. It’s filled with demons and paranoia and fear.”  New York Times.

In Rocky II, we quickly learn the cautionary tale that fame and money can quickly be frittered away. Rocky’s rather pathetic attempts to do commercial endorsements are a failure. Out of financial obligation he must accept the challenge of a rematch with Apollo Creed. Drama, soul-searching and gut-checking ensue. We’re on very similar territory here to Rocky I, only with fewer memorable moments.

Rocky III introduces us to that 1980s icon, Mr. T. By this point, Rocky is filthy rich and wearing nicely-tailored suits. Early on, the ever-shiftless Paulie asks him for financial help. Rocky gives him a stern lecture about how “nobody owes anybody anything.” When he climbs into the ring with Mr. T, known here as Clubber Lang, he is soundly pummeled into defeat. But we viewers know he’s had a lot on his mind. His beloved trainer has succumbed to a heart attack. What follows is yet more soul-searching and gut-checking—even more than in Rocky I or II—because now Rocky is exploring the meaning of “believing in yourself.” Can he beat Clubber Lang in the rematch? Not without a stirring pep-talk from beloved Adrian, and not without the wisdom and advice of Apollo Creed, who is now a friend, not an adversary. There’s a strange moment when Rocky goes to Los Angeles to train in Creed’s gym. Everyone in the gym is African American and, as to be expected, that seething ball of white rage, Paulie, doesn’t like it. Rocky admonishes him. “Well maybe these guys don’t like you either.”

Rocky IV is barely worth discussing. I am pretty convinced that everyone involved, Stallone included, must have snorted wheelbarrows full of coke before making it. Yes Stallone is still very ripped, but he’s also become a caricature of himself. He’s pitted against a seemingly superhuman enemy from the Soviet Union who, to make things really high-stakes, outright KILLS Apollo Creed in the ring. Rocky of course must get vengeance. He travels to Russia, which actually just looks like rural Minnesota or something (presumably because no one could be bothered to actually location scout in the Evil Empire) and, well, look, this paragraph is already longer than I had wanted. If you have to skip one Rocky film, make it this one.

A little bit of Rocky’s mojo returns for the fifth installment. An up-and-comer called Tommy Gun seeks out Rocky as a trainer. But then an unscrupulous manager, who must surely be modeled after Don King, lures Tommy Gun away with the promise of lotsa money, not to mention women with large breasts and bad make-up. Rocky V has a pretty kick-ass ending, which basically sends the message: “the old dog still has a few tricks.”

Which brings us to Rocky Balboa, which, we are to believe, is the final film in the series. It is easily the saddest, and for that reason, perhaps the most interesting film outside of Rocky I. His wife now dead, Rocky gets platonically involved with the woman he gave a scolding to when she was just a girl in the first film, telling her not to be a slut. Philadelphia by this point looks almost post-apocalyptic. His new woman friend lives next to a house that’s been gutted and boarded up. The street corner is desolate. Rocky’s son is miserable at his job and tired of living in his father’s shadow. Thanks to a computer simulation that enacts a hypothetical fight between Rocky, star of the 1970s and 1980s, and Mason Dixon, the current champion, public interest in Balboa is reignited. People want to know, is Mason Dixon a champ of the same calibre as Rocky?

Rocky 2006

This is where Stallone decides that even though he appears to be taking this film very seriously (unlike the coke-binge/MTV-video style of Rocky IV) he is prepared to throw in the towel when it comes to plausibility. George Foreman famously won his last heavyweight title aged forty-five, but that’s still a far cry from the travesty that viewers are asked to swallow here. Stallone looks every bit his sixty years. His face is as craggy as Mars. Sure he can bulk up like a prize bull who eats steroids for breakfast, lunch and dinner, but the notion that he can even last three rounds with Mason Dixon is outright preposterous.

But we get the sense that Stallone doesn’t care. He wants the perfect sentimental ending. He’s still got just enough of the old writer’s instincts to shoot for symmetry and so Rocky Balboa climaxes much the same way Rocky I climaxed. But it doesn’t work. From 1976 to 2006, everything has changed. Where before the American Dream seemed attainable, by 2006 we’re almost sneering with derision that anyone still expects us to buy this crap. I did admire the way that Stallone was prepared to show us what a shithole so much of urban America has become, but if anyone is looking for a “take-home” message here, it would basically be: quit while you’re ahead.

Come-Barbarians

Come Barbarians started life named The South of France. With a title like that, you could be forgiven for expecting humorous observations about obsessive artisan cheese-makers, reflections on tending a herb garden in a hot, dry climate, and odes to breathtaking mountain views of sky and sea. Something like Peter Mayle’s famous Year in Provence, perhaps…  Let me tell you — warn you — dear reader, you are not in for a book like that!

The title change was a very good idea, because Todd Babiak’s fifth novel is a no-holds-barred-thriller that doesn’t simply use France as a fancy backdrop but instead probes the country’s seamy and corrupt underbelly.  When it opens, I found myself experiencing a profound feeling of disorientation. That’s appropriate for the premise: our protagonist, Christopher Kruse, has just lost his daughter to a fatal car accident and his wife, Evelyn, has gone missing. A sense of mystery hangs over these pages, like fog in the tight streets of a medieval town. What the hell has happened?

This is the burning question that propels the narrative forward, and boy does it rip, TGV-style, all over France. Kruse, it appears, has been cuckolded; Evelyn was embroiled in an affair with an aspiring leader of France’s notorious right-wing party, the National Front. That leader, like Kruse’s daughter, is also dead. And Evelyn is suspect number one for his murder.

Kruse’s search for Evelyn is also a search for the truth. It gets him deeper and deeper into interconnected webs of deception, manipulation and political skullduggery at the very highest levels of government, but nothing ever stretches the limits of believability. It does, at times, test the reader’s stomach for violence and brutality. There is an act of torture about halfway through the book that will not help with your insomnia. DOES ANYTHING GOOD EVER HAPPEN IN MARSEILLE?!

Babiak’s book comes at a curious time for those of us who grew up as francophiles. France is still the most heavily-visited tourist nation in the world, for obvious reasons (the Louvre, Avignon, Normandy, the Alps, the Pyrenees, the Mediterranean – all in the same country?). Sensible Americans envy its world class health care system. And France’s citizens are mostly — and again to the envy of so many — still quite svelte, unlike those flabby and beer bloated hooligans inhabiting the country just the other side of the English Channel. And France’s literary culture still generates considerable excitement and notoriety. Writers like Michel Houellebecq have become national heroes/villains.

But… but… as Babiak’s book so adroitly makes clear: there are two Frances. There is the France of “The South of France,” and the France of Come Barbarians, set, by the way, in the early 1990s. This France is well on its way to becoming the France of today, even less mythic, more conflicted, which passes laws prohibiting public sector employees from wearing the hijab or turban and, tiresomely, inspires a new government in Quebec to attempt a similar act. Each version of France fascinates, intrigues, and enrages those who take the time to get to know it.

In short, France cuts a pretty arresting figure on the narrative scene.

As for Babiak’s prose, it is tight, like an electrical wire. It primarily serves the plot, but like any good power-line, it hums along and goes everywhere: from a nondescript hotel in the ‘burbs to a gendarmerie in an ancient cobblestone town to a crowded political forum. The following brief but telling scene, I think, gives a pretty good insight into the kind of master craftsman’s touches to expect:

The ugly courtyard in front of the Sorbonne was deserted. He could see his champagne breath as he exited the taxi, whose driver was from Afghanistan and longed to be in London or New York, where a man could go from poor to rich in only a year or two. He could not marry and raise a child in this country of whores and faggots because a man does not own his wife and child in France–the state owns everything. La France, yes? La? Even the men are womanly. It is illegal to touch your own wife, to smack your own child if he is misbehaving. What sort of life is that, Monsieur?

Kruse did not give the driver a tip.

CanLit’s detractors sometimes claim our books are too nice, polite and reserved. No one is going to say that about this book. Come Barbarians, like France, compels our attention, throwing dirty punches one second, and charming us with wit and sophistication the next–and never apologizing  for holding us unflinchingly in its callused grip.

caucasus-lermontov

Lermontov died in a duel just over a year after publishing A Hero of Our Time (1840). For we readers, this is the kind of timing of which legends are made. Imagine if Paul McCartney had died in a fist-fight after writing Live and Let Die, or if Marlon Brando had been fatally wounded by a pit-bull after appearing in On the Waterfront. For Lermontov, A Hero of Our Time stands as the brilliant legacy of a creative mind snuffed out prematurely.

The very title can be considered to be, in the narrator’s own words, “malicious irony.” The novel’s protagonist, Grigory Pechorin (named after the northern Russian river, the Pechora) is manipulative, deceitful, course, and often outright villainous. He frequently sabotages and sometimes even destroys the lives of others, including friends and lovers.

It’s easy to see this is as a precursor to so many of the famous Russian masterpieces of the 19th century, especially a book such as Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. But it would be wrong to read this purely for a literary history lesson. This is quite simply an astounding work, ingenious for its construction and flawless in its execution.

There are five story arcs here told by three different narrators – one unnamed, who opens the book, Maxim Maximych, an army captain, who picks up the narrative very quickly afterward, and Pechorin himself, who relays the bulk of the dramatic narrative through to the book’s conclusion. So in a way, we approach Pechorin a bit like a plane breaking through the clouds to get to its destination: we begin at a distance, we get closer, and ultimately we get very close indeed.

Of the five narratives, I enjoyed the first, Bela, and the last, The Fatalist, the most. But this book shouldn’t be confused for a collection of short stories. I do think A Hero of Our Time must be read in sequence: the logic of following the prescribed order is to gain insights en route to the final part’s considerations of some Truly Big Questions – and to bear such weight, we need to live with Pechorin for a while.

In Bela, Maxim Maximych tells the story of his encounter with Pechorin. The events take place in the Caucasus – the Russian empire’s frontier, a rough and wild place. Pechorin falls for a beautiful woman named Bela, and schemes up a cunning way to win her over. It turns out that Bela’s brother Azamat covets the horse of a local trader, and Pechorin says he’ll steal the horse in exchange for Azamat’s sister. (Yes, a horse ends up getting “traded” for a woman – this isn’t exactly a pleasant read for a 21st century reader.)

But here’s the thing: Pechorin sets in motion this awful sequence of events, which ultimately ends fatally for Bela, without having ever really been in love. Before Bela’s demise, she becomes quite devoted to Pechorin, but this only hastens his sense of boredom with her.

Pechorin is a restless figure – seemingly never satisfied, always seeking new adventures, pleasures and schemes, and openly scorns or considers himself unfit for conventional life. In this respect, Lermontov has presented a very modern figure; Pechorin reminded me a little of David di Meola in Michel Houellebecq’s seminal novel 1998 novel, The Elementary Particles – insofar as we’re dealing with somebody almost entirely unmoored from any kind of moral structure.

In The Fatalist, Pechorin takes a break from his sophisticated games of plotting and scheming. What unfolds instead is the tale of a drinking game, rather like Russian roulette, and its aftermath. Pechorin believes that the man pointing the gun at his own head will not survive, and bets against him, believing he has seen some physical sign of doom on the man’s face. This raises questions about fate and predestination — the subjects of the drinking conversation all night.

After the events of the party (no spoilers here!)  Pechorin departs, and we are treated to the following paragraph – a meditation on the rapid decline of fatalistic thinking in society generally:

I walked home through the empty back streets of the village. A full red moon was just showing over the broken line of buildings, like the glare of a fire. Stars shone calmly in the deep blue sky, and I was amazed to think that there were once wise men who imagined the stars took part in men’s pretty squabbles over a patch of land or somebody’s ‘rights.’ While in fact these lamps, which they supposed had been lit for the sole purpose of shining on their battles and triumphs, still burn on as bright as ever, while they, with all their passions and hopes, have long since vanished, like a fire lit by some carefree traveller at the edge of a forest. Yet what strength they derived from this certainty that the heavens with all their countless hosts looked down on them in silent, but never-failing sympathy. And we, their pitiful descendants, drift through the world, without beliefs, pride, pleasure or fear, except that automatic fear that grips us when we think of the certainty of death. We can no longer make great sacrifices for the good of mankind, or even for our own happiness, because we know they are unattainable. And as our ancestors rushed from illusion to illusion, so we drift indifferently from doubt to doubt. But, unlike them, we have no hope, nor even that indefinable but real sense of pleasure that’s felt in any struggle, be it with men or destiny.

I admit, I was pretty shaken by these words. I had to stop and read them again. And again. And then I read them aloud to my wife.

All in all, this book’s mix of nastiness, violence and vice, combined with beautiful insights, popping up in the most unexpected of places, like an obelisk rising from a swamp, kept me utterly enthralled.

The translation I read was Paul Foote’s – the Penguin Classics edition. Thanks, Nick Glossop of the Paltry Sapien, for lending it to me.
Top image: Tiflis, 1837, A painting by Mikhail Lermontov

girl_with_the_dragon_tattoo

The success of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and its two sequels, is staggering. Worldwide these books have sold 73 million copies. Stieg Larsson died in 2004 before he saw even a fraction of this eventual success. As the New Yorker reports, the author wanted to leave his then modest wealth to a local branch of Sweden’s Communist Workers’ Party, but because there was no witness, the will was invalid, leaving his family members and girlfriend to squabble over his fortune.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was made into a popular Swedish film, as were the sequels, and then David Fincher of Se7en and The Social Network fame embarked on an American remake a mere two years later. I’ve seen two of the Swedish films—in fact, I committed the supposedly cardinal sin of doing so before I even touched the book. But as the New Yorker points out, these books most probably work better as films. For one, the films are beautiful to look at. (I now really, really want to go to Stockholm!) Also, they’re incredibly violent, and we all know that spectators of the modern era revel in scenes of brutality, torture and revenge. Furthermore, the highly talented cast of actors adds substantial depth to the characters.

Our two heroes are Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander: he is the veteran publisher of the muckraking magazine Millennium (an echo of Larsson’s own career with the real-life magazine, Expo); she is a traumatized bisexual goth-punk with an astonishing acumen for hacking into computers and digging up dirt on people.

Part of what accounts for the book’s popularity, I think, is that it’s incredibly easy for the reader to follow the investigative methods employed by these two purportedly brilliant researchers. At one point, Salander wants to find out more about the unsolved murder of a woman called Magda. So what’s the first thing she does? She types “Magda” and “murder” into the Google search engine. In the sequel, The Girl Who Played with Fire, Blomkvist imparts some journalistic wisdom to a young intern: how exactly do you find out the address of a potential criminal who is trying to evade detection? The answer is the old “lottery trick”: you call the person and say they’ve won a valuable smartphone and ask for their address for the purpose of delivering the prize. It’s the sort of thing a fourteen year-old would think up.

This is the wonderful thing about Larsson: he writes with the unrestrained joy for invention that, with education, is typically beaten out of most writers. There are plot holes, utter implausibilities and scads of extraneous information. In the hands of a professional editor, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo would probably be 300 pages instead of its door-stopping 800+. But would 300 pages have kept me occupied during a flight to Edmonton and through the 9-hour delay on the flight back?

Size, in this case, really does matter.

There is an exemplary section of prose that represents well, I think, Larsson’s strange technique. These books were hurriedly translated from Swedish and so allowances must be made, but I’m guessing that since little to no editing occurred, this is a pretty fair picture of how Larsson actually wrote. This is from a scene in which Salander is beating up an arch-villain:

“Do you like pain, creep?” Salander said.

Her voice was as rough as sandpaper. As long as Blomkvist lived, he would never forget her face as she went on the attack. Her teeth were bared like a beast of prey. Her eyes were glittering, black as coal. She moved with the lightning speed of a tarantula and seemed totally focussed on her prey as she swung the club again, striking Martin in the ribs.

Glorious. Simply glorious! Here’s a writer who has no qualms about conjuring the image of a tarantula swinging a club. He’s in thrall to metaphor. What’s important here? That Salander is super-dangerous. What better way to convey it than by comparing her to a deadly spider?

There is a rare optimism in this book. Larsson pits his protagonists against the dark forces of Swedish capitalism, Nazism and corruption, and in the balance, his protagonists fare pretty well. Consider that Blomkvist is a journalist. In the era of Wikileaks and Edward Snowden, perhaps we should not be so surprised to see a journalist as a hero, but let’s not forget, Chelsea Manning is behind bars and Snowden and Julian Assange are fugitives. Blomkvist, we are told, is a celebrity in Sweden.

Blomkvist is also inexplicably irresistible to women. Despite being somewhat overweight, a chain smoker, and a compulsive workaholic, women want to sleep with him at every opportunity. Even Salander, who, as is noted several times, is only half his age, can’t refrain from climbing into his bed. It’s as if Larsson is acting out his personal fantasies on the page.

And then there’s Larsson’s obsession with technology. It’s everywhere! Salander doesn’t just buy herself a new computer, she buys herself an “Apple PowerBook G4/1.0 GHz . . . with a PowerPC 7451 processor with an AltiVec Velocity Engine, 960 MB RAM and a 60 GB hard drive.” Larsson doesn’t stop to consider how dated this is going to seem five years later, let alone fifty.

To me, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo doesn’t read so much as a compelling narrative as it does an intriguing insight into the mind of its creator. And in this respect, it’s awfully hard not to like. Larsson entitled the original Swedish version of the book Men Who Hate Women. To make sure we get the point, each part of the novel opens with a statistic about crimes against women. To make even more sure we get the point, all the villains in this book commit crimes against women. And they all pay the price for it. When he was a teenager, Larsson witnessed the gang rape of a girl and forever afterward felt guilty for doing nothing to stop it. These books seem to have served as some kind of lengthy atonement.

Larsson’s been compared to Alexandre Dumas of The Three Musketeers fame, and perhaps that’s apt. As well as being extraordinarily prolific (3+ massive novels in under four years?!) Larsson has returned us to a time when good truly did triumph over evil, or at least had a fighting chance. It’s thrilling to see Millennium, a tiny fictional magazine, its budget probably not much bigger than Montreal’s maisonneuve or New York’s Jacobin, strike genuine fear into the hearts of the rich and powerful, and moreover, actually cause the downfall of international gangsters and titans of industry. This kind of shit just doesn’t happen in real life. In Larsson’s world, every crooked capitalist should be watching his back for the marauding journalist or intrepid computer hacker who is poised to deliver justice, swiftly and mercilessly. This is not the world we live in, but perhaps it should be.

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