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MartinJohnI have read a lot of good books over the last while. If you want to be certain of getting good books into your hands, surround yourself by smart and literate friends who will recommend stuff to you. They won’t let you down!

Here are some highlights of the reading life.

Martin John, by Anakana Schofield

This novel, about a sex offender – told mainly from his perspective and his mother’s – is funny and disturbing and is rightfully getting heaps of critical praise. I loved it; could barely put it down. Then I saw Schofield read from it at the Blue Metropolis Literary Festival and was struck by how intentionally she’s incorporated a sense of rhythm into her prose. It’s the kind of writing that is inventive, demanding, and would be called beautiful if it weren’t so deliberately ugly for all the right reasons.

Submission, Michelle Houellebecq

I’ve been a fan of Houellebecq for a very long time, but over the last decade, I’d sort of started to wonder if he was becoming a parody of himself. Then he releases Submission, and I was still a little uncertain, because from the reviews it sounded like Houellebecq was simply trying to be as much of an enfant terrible as possible: conjuring a plot about the Muslim Brotherhood taking over France. But the book went down easily, “like a bad oyster.” It all seemed horribly plausible. Submission is not the reactionary raving of a racist throwback. It’s Houellebecq crafting compelling plot while winding up his audience, forcing readers to think through what would happen if there were a legitimate and well-planned plot against an ailing, enfeebled western liberal democracy.

Postcapitalism, Paul Mason

My yearly dose of non-fiction! First half was very compelling. Great insights into the crises that have plagued capitalism since practically its inception. I wasn’t so sure about the technology-fuelled optimism about the future. But I do think Mason is probably correct in his basic premise: a new form of economy is going to form out of experiments that emerge before capitalism itself is dead. Maybe the new already exists, and to steal from William Gibson, “hasn’t been evenly distributed yet.” A very compelling read.

You, Comma, Idiot, Doug Harris

Doug is a born-and-raised Montrealer and we actually have known each other for eight years, going all the way back to my strange stint of work at Bath Fitter (Doug’s production company cut Bath Fitter’s North America-wide commercials). I loved You Comma, Idiot. It’s a bit reminiscent of my own Blind Spot in that it features a schmuck for a protagonist. The book also provides a fantastic snapshot of Montreal, warts-and-all.

And I am up to stuff

Here’s a link to a recording of a true story that I told for This Really Happened, an annual event the Blue Metropolis Literary Festival. It’s called My Pagan Family, and is about the exhumation of a dead goat, a World War II gas mask, and familial bonding through druidism.

As for my fiction, I feel like a walking cliché. “I am working on my new novel,” has been my refrain for three years. It isn’t ready yet, and is unlikely to be so any time soon. Tentatively called “Northern Lies,” drafting of the novel preceded the Jian Ghomeshi scandal as well as the release of the final report of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But now that those two events have happened, I’m calling this a post-Ghomeshi, post-TRC novel, because without initially meaning to, I think I’ve delved into some issues of contemporary significance, and the fear that grips me every time I sit down in front of my laptop is: what makes me think I’m even remotely qualified to write this? But I keep on keeping on regardless, and have checked in with a professional editor twice now, who has reassured me I am not completely delusional that I could have a readable piece of work at the end of all this. It’s the third major draft that’s underway, and hopefully it’ll be finished by the end of the summer, when I will again check in with outside perspectives to see if I’ve committed a gross act of hubris and white privilege, or whether I’ve made an honest and empathetic attempt to portray a plausible scenario that could have unfolded some time in the early going of the 21st century in Canada.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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This is a harsh January in Montreal. The weather here is actually colder than in Edmonton, where Monika and I spent the Christmas break. One day is plus 2 and raining, the next day is minus 15 and even colder with the windchill. It’s jarring… Whine, whine!

What’s helping ease the pain of mid-winter is… books. Holy crap, have I been exposed to some great books lately, and that is to a large extent thanks to Argo Books, an independent bookstore located on Ste. Catherine, not far from where I work.

NorthEastNorth East, Wendy McGrath
This novel from NeWest Press (hey, that’s my publisher!) is set in Edmonton as well as a rural prairie farm, and is big on mood and the feelings of the young protagonist, a girl who is likely going to grow up fast, given the family dysfunction and scarcity she is exposed to. It’s very strong for psychological insights and there is a rhythmic, repetitive quality to the prose that is sometimes reminiscent of Thomas Bernhard.

The Freedom in American Songs, Kathleen Winter
Oh boy, I haven’t devoured right through to the marrow of short stories in this way since discovering Mavis Gallant’s Home Truths. “You Seem a Little Bit Sad” is a stand-out hit (for me) in a collection that is witty, true, poignant and beautiful.

My Struggle, Books 1 and 2, Karl Ove Knausgaard
This series of six books, totalling over 3,000 pages, has been a massive success. Reportedly about one in five inhabitants of Knausgaard’s native country of Norway has read it. Zadie Smith compared it to crack, and I agree. It’s got a super-addictive quality and is unflinchingly candid. I’ll be trying to say something more intelligent about this series on my blog soon.

On Beauty, Zadie Smith
This is the only book on the list that disappointed me. I enjoyed Smith’s debut, White Teeth, so I was surprised to be so let down this time around. For a campus satire, it lacked… well, teeth. Smith was too kind to all of her characters, and ended up seemingly on the fence about everything.

Island of the Doomed, Stig Dagerman
It astounds me that Dagerman wrote this when he was only 23. I’m about halfway through and already my mind is being a little bit blown. Seven survivors of a shipwreck are trapped on an island with blind seagulls and a whole lot of iguanas. The “memory-dreams” of each survivor are in many case even more bizarre than his or her shipwrecked present.

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I started out 2015 by finishing the second draft of a novel that is tentatively called Northern Lies. I’ve been toiling away on this since summer of 2013, and honestly, I have no idea whether it’s publishable. If it is, there’s still a lot of work to be done. It’s set in Montreal, Mont Sainte-Anne, and the Eastern Townships.

In more unequivocally positive news, I had a story of mine, “The City of Magnitogorsk” published by Cosmonauts Avenue, an online magazine based here in Montreal that I am just a little bit in love with.

Happy 2015!

There is a fantastic essay over at the New Yorker called “An Answer to the Novel’s Detractors.” It’s a sort of rebuttal to the many recent writers who appear to have grown exhausted/exasperated with conventional fiction, a group that includes a couple of writers I admire greatly, Sheila Heti and Karl Ove Knausgaard.

Waldman’s essay takes issue with David Shields’ book Reality Hunger, which I admit I have not read. Her essay is by no means a polemic, or even a severe critique; it could be read, in some respects, as a call-to-arms for novelists to recognize the particular attributes that makes novels unique, and to deploy them skillfully, and to not lean on the many tired devices that can make narrative seem manipulative. (She is in agreement with Shields’ list of these tired devices, coincidence, eavesdropping, melodramatic reversals, kindly benefactors, cruel wills, to which Waldman adds “the revelation of long-buried family secrets”).

I really liked the way she set up her essay, suggesting a few ways in which contemporary fiction might be in trouble:

The novel form isn’t the reason so much contemporary fiction seems uninspired; for that, we’d do better to consider other causes, of which there are plenty: an emphasis on documenting social conditions and modernity over the study of individual characters, a post-Freudian tendency to lean on secondhand psychoanalytic ideas as a cover for incomprehension or shallowness, a corrosive commitment to niceness at the expense of the kind of social and moral judgments that used to be at the novel’s center, MFA programs, to name just a few possibilities.

I admit I got a quiet thrill out of reading “corrosive commitment to niceness.” There’s an awful lot of this  lately. I don’t know so much about the USA (Waldman’s home is Brooklyn) but in Canada the idea is endemic that books have to be good for us, have to grapple with social problems, build bridges between communities, etc. I’ve often believed that Canada would be about the worst place to be a talented reactionary fiction writer, and yet we must concede that such a writer might be pretty worthwhile reading, not exclusively because he or she would most certainly trouble the rather milquetoast consensus that’s emerged among our nation’s liberal left-leaning taste-makers. (I say this as an unreformed leftie!)

Waldman also  shows why good narrative is typically not ideological, and shouldn’t comfort us or confirm our worldviews, but rather, “baffle” us:

The novel’s tendency to work against generalization is not limited to political or social biases. When novel characters sound like mouthpieces for the author’s overarching theories about human motivation or psychology, even the least sophisticated readers recognize this intuitively as bad. And so novels don’t usually offer up simple theories about human nature—for those, one must look to self-help books. In this sense, good fiction doesn’t tend to console but rather to complicate, to baffle our desire for easy explanation, to give us not what we want but what we suspect is more meaningful, more akin to the complexity we encounter in life.

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Since 2014 is wrapping up, I thought I’d look back on some of the books I read this year that truly stuck with me. One of them is Adelle Waldman’s The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. It was such a refreshing and original journey into the male psyche.

Some more highlights from 2014:

Woodcutters, Thomas Bernhard. My first Bernhard experience most certainly won’t be the last. The Austrian misanthrope’s 1985 novel is cruel, hilarious, and unexpectedly life affirming at the end.

The Freedom in American Songs. Kathleen Winter is one of my favourite short story writers since I discovered (very belatedly) Mavis Gallant. I haven’t even started on her novels or memoirs yet! Lots to look forward to.

How Should a Person Be, Sheila Heti. I read this for a second time and was just as impressed as the first time. There’s no plot, nor does there need to be. Just an examination of some of the most important questions of our times!

My Struggle, Book 1, Karl Ove Knausgaard. I now believe the hype!

Brighton Rock, Graham Greene. While promoting my own book in Edmonton, I publicly disclosed on the radio that I had never read Graham Greene. Embarrassing. Ran out, bought this, remedied my shortcoming. This is a mean, bleak book. I was hooked.

A Hero of Our Time, Mikhail Lermontov. Just brilliant. I raved about it here.

Some Extremely Boring Drives, Marguerite Pigeon. Fellow NeWest’er.

Here are the books I am reading next:

On Beauty, Zadie Smith (currently reading)
North East, Wendy McGrath
Boundless, Kathleen Winter
In the Skin of a Lion, Michael Ondaatje
10:04, Ben Lerner
419, Will Ferguson
My Struggle, Book 2, Karl Ove Knausgaard
Us Conductors, Sean Michaels

It’ll be a good finish to 2014, a strong start to 2015, hopefully!

Black Dog Freehouse

Where it all begins! The book launch is here, 7pm, September 5.

Everything is set up for a busy fall, with several events now booked for promoting my first novel, Blind Spot. I’ll kick things off at Edmonton Public Library – Strathcona Branch (8331 – 104 Street) with a reading on August 31 at 1:30pm. Then comes the official launch at the Black Dog Free House in Edmonton (10425, Whyte Ave.) on September 5 at 7pm. Fellow NeWest author. Thea Bowering, will also be reading from her new book, Love at Last Sight.

Back in Montreal, I’ll be joined by my Concordia colleague, Christian Durand, a fellow former Edmontonian, who will emcee an event at Librairie Drawn and Quarterly (211 rue Bernard O), September 25 at 7pm. Then on October 6 at 7pm, I’ll be reading downtown at Argo Bookstore (MY LOCAL, MY BELOVED! — 1915 rue Sainte Catherine O). I’ll be joined by fellow NeWest Press author, Margaret Pigeon, whose new book is a collection of short stories called Some Extremely Boring Drives.

The buzz in the media has begun early for Blind Spot. The novel is in Quill and Quire‘s Fall Preview and in 49th Shelf’s “Most Anticipated” List. The Edmonton Journal is running a series of four articles about the novel, mapping its lifespan, from inception to sale-time. The first article appeared Friday.

Mavis Gallant

Mavis Gallant. Photo

This piece originally appeared in carte blanche, the literary review of the Quebec Writers’ Federation. My sincere thank you to Nicola Danby for editing it.

To me, the longstanding appeal of fiction has always been to escape my limited worldview and enter that of somebody else. Now, I don’t read stories by women to find out what women are like. There’s real life for that. I read stories by women for the same reason I read stories by men. When I say I love the stories of Mavis Gallant, I don’t say so because she is a woman. I say it because she is a great writer, full stop. It’s embarrassing to belabour this point, but I feel I should, because I am a man, and because there is nothing so awful for a man to say than something like, “She’s great. And she’s a woman, too!”

Something rather dreadful like this happened recently on Twitter, when Playboy (who’da thunk a Hugh Heffner production would be so sexist?!) tried to heap praise on the musician Neko Case. The cringe-inducing tweet that Case was “breaking the mold of what women in the music industry should be” elicited more than a cringe from Case—thank God. She replied:

IM NOT A FUCKING “WOMAN IN MUSIC”, IM A FUCKING MUSICIAN IN MUSIC!

It’s in this spirit that I present my list.

1. The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street, by Mavis Gallant
This story, about ex-patriot Canadians in Europe (like many of Gallant’s stories) is probably one of her most famous. It’s the kind of story you can read, not get, read again, not get, and keep not-getting, perhaps for your whole life. Because that’s how Gallant is—so astonishingly life-like are her literary creations that you never, ever feel the authorial temptation to tell you something, explain to you something. No, what you get is messiness, confusion, self-doubt. This story is about an encounter between a male protagonist with a younger woman who is originally from a small-town in Saskatchewan. It’s simple. And it’s not.

2. Dear Life, by Alice Munro
The title story of Alice Munro’s most-recently published collection is a gem, not just for all the many usual reasons that Munro’s fiction is celebrated, but also because it’s such a compelling account of how an author picks over the events of her own life—seeking stories, maybe meanings—and how both the stories and meanings change over the decades. It’s probably not a stretch to say that only a woman of Munro’s extraordinary longevity could pull off this kind of feat.

3. Bliss, by Katherine Mansfield
“Although Bertha Young was thirty she still had moments like this when she wanted to run instead of walk, to take dancing steps on and off the pavement, to bowl a hoop, to throw something up in the air and catch it again, or to stand still and laugh at–nothing–at nothing, simply.” That’s how much fantastic writing is on offer just in the first line. New Zealand has produced so much more for us to marvel at than the backdrop for the The Lord of the Rings.

4. The Museum of Useless Efforts, by Cristina Peri Rossi
The imagination of the Uruguayan Rossi, is larger than the constraints of earthly reality, if one can make so bold a claim. Her highly experimental fiction is always weird, never dull. I really love this story because it starts with such a wonderful premise—a museum that catalogs all the “useless efforts” in history (“a man tried to fly seven times; some prostitutes attempted to find another job; a woman wanted to paint a picture”)—and it just gets better from there.

5. The Yellow Wallpaper, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
The classic story of a descent into madness. It’s made all the more poignant because madness, of course, plays out worse for women than men in the late stages of the nineteenth century, when this was written.

6. The Resplendent Quetzal, by Margaret Atwood
Atwood is possibly the wittiest author Canada’s given the world. Her story from 1977 about tourists in Mexico is a gem.

7. The Story of an Hour, by Kate Chopin
Intense, fast moving and with a shock ending. Frequently anthologized.

8. Why I Live at the P.O., by Eudora Welty
Set in the deep South, by an author who, like Faulkner, was determined to create narrative out of the society immediately around her, this story bursts off the page through the entertaining but also cruel conversation/argument that you get in a close-knit family.

9. How Should a Person Be?, by Sheila Heti
This entry on the list is, well, me cheating, because this is not in fact a short story, but rather, a novel excerpt that the magazine n+1 published back in 2010. I was blown away by it and scant months later, bought the full work. Heti is easily one of the best young Canadian authors at work today.

10. In the Tunnel, by Mavis Gallant
I said I loved the stories of Mavis Gallant, so I had to include a second story by her on the list! This one sets a couple of stodgy old Brits in the south of France with a young Canadian guest who is sleeping with somebody she calls Professor Downcast. Brilliant.

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

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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.

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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.

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