Emotionally naked (you perv)

Juliet Naked Nick Hornby

Fair warning: if you look up Nick Hornby’s Juliet, Naked on Google Images, be prepared to find way more than you were looking for. But despite what Google might push on you, the nakedness here is innocent: it refers to the emotionally raw and unfinished nature of Tucker Crowe’s new release.

Tucker Crowe is a past-prime recluse rock star. In the 20 years since the release of his seminal album Juliet, Crowe has led a hermit life, making progressively bigger mistakes until he decides to settle and become a good husband to Cat, his fourth wife, and a good father to Jackson, his fifth child. Jackson, six years old, is one of the best characters in the story, with wisdom well beyond his age and a paranoia about death equalled by few. Duncan is a huge fan of Tucker Crowe—a Crowologist. One of those fans who spends his free time discussing 20-year-old music in an internet forum, as if the reason for Tucker’s sudden abandon of the music scene held a greater truth.

Annie is Duncan’s not-really-wife. She puts up with his Crowe obsession, but it’s taxing on their relationship. But she’s not as clueless about Tucker’s music as Duncan seems to think. When Juliet, Naked comes in the mail direct from the record company, she listens to it without telling Duncan. Juliet, Naked is essentially the demo version of Juliet, raw and unfinished, and Annie doesn’t think it’s as good as the official, finished album. Duncan, despite being furious over Annie’s breach of protocol—and even more at her dislike of the album—writes a raving review on the forum before any of the other Crowologists get a chance to listen.

Here’s where the plot starts to get interesting. Annie decides to post a review of her own to the forum, and she receives an email response from Tucker. From Tucker Crowe the hermit! At first she’s incredulous, but slowly an email relationship begins to develop, with plenty of teenage fawning on both sides.

When Duncan cheats on Annie with a new coworker and Cat divorces Tucker, the two find solace in their emails, and eventually they decide to meet. Now this is where the story takes off, with an awkward Crowe family reunion in a hospital in London and an even more awkward encounter between Duncan and Tucker. But I’ll leave it at that so I don’t ruin the best bits.

My first experience of Nick Hornby’s writing was Long Way Down, an absolutely hilarious novel about four people who meet at the top of a building, all planning to jump, and end up convincing each other not to. Juliet, Naked isn’t as laugh-out-loud funny as Long Way Down, but it’s more touching, and equally good. There’s plenty of humour, but it’s more human. Long Way Down is a tragicomedy of extremes—depression and hilarity—while Juliet, Naked is one that makes good use of the gooey stuff in between.

Caveat. Remember the cringe-worthy epilogue to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows? Of course you do. We all wish it didn’t happen. The epilogue to Juliet, Naked had a similar effect. It kind of made the book bleh, in those four pages, by telling us more than we needed to know about how the story unfolds. In Deathly Hallows it was all too wishy-washy, too much everything-turned-out-well-in-the-end; in Juliet, Naked it was an unwanted confirmation that sorting out Tucker’s problems made his music crappy. Which is kind of funny, I guess, but I would have preferred the “ignorance is bliss” approach.

So it goes

Slaughterhouse Five Kurt Vonnegut

Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut, is one of those classics that most people read in high school but I missed out on. I was reading Nineteen Eighty-Four, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Gulliver’s Travels. Some of my classmates did read Slaughterhouse-Five, but I don’t remember what their reaction was. Vonnegut only became a prominent name for me during my undergrad, through one of my creative writing courses. In the beginning of the year I made a point of finally reading Vonnegut’s best-known novel, to satisfy both my curiosity and my need to be able to say I’ve read Vonnegut.

War novels aren’t usually my thing, but reading Heller’s Catch-22 last year opened my mind about how amazing a war novel could be. And on top of that, Slaughterhouse-Five enticed me with its mixture of things I appreciate—metafiction, science fiction, and humour. It tells the story of Billy Pilgrim, a soldier (and later a veteran) who is a time traveller, but not in the conventional sense. Pilgrim can’t control his time-travelling—he ” has come unstuck in time”—and lives different parts of his life in a jumbled order. He is also abducted by aliens and put on display in the Trafalmadore zoo.

“All this happened, more or less,” says the narrator at the beginning of the first chapter. “The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true. One guy I knew really was shot in Dresden for taking a teapot that wasn’t his. Another guy I knew really did threaten to have his personal enemies killed by hired gunmen after the war. And so on. I’ve changed all the names.” The speaker—presumably Vonnegut himself—goes on to detail the circumstances that brought him to write the book you’re holding. But it’s done in that delicious metafictional way that assures you it’s all true while making you acutely aware that not everything is—but what isn’t? The reader is given a choice of what to believe.

From a science fiction perspective, I especially appreciated the concept of the Trafalmadorians, and their parallel to Pilgrim. Their physical appearance is unimportant (but you can read about on Wikipedia, of course). What intrigued me was that Trafalmadorians experience time as a physical dimension. They can look into the future or the past much as we can look at mountains in the distance, and they can move through time at will. They know how everything ends, including the universe, and they treat death so nonchalantly that they shrug it off by saying, “So it goes.” After all nothing is dead for good; they are dead in one set of moments, but they are alive in others. Pilgrim, as he drifts back and forth through time and learns from the Trafalmadorians, ends up with their same sense of inevitability. Nothing surprises him, for he’s seen it before, and every mention of death in the novel is immediately  followed by the Trafalmadorian phrase. So it goes.

The problem is that Slaughterhouse-Five fails as a novel, as a whole. (Bizarrely, Vonnegut acknowledges this at the end of the introductory first chapter.) For the most part, the humour is too subtle, completely unlike the outrageously funny Catch-22. And while the metafiction and science fiction aspects of the novel say a lot about the experiences of war veterans—practically literal escapism for Billy Pilgrim, which is certainly the point of the novel—the story lacks pull. With the narration as jumbled as Pilgrim’s experience of life, there is no clear plot, and the story doesn’t build in tension throughout. The novel holds attention more by its nature than by its contents, which I see as a failure.

Which is not to say that Slaughterhouse-Five is not worth reading. But read it for the metafictional thought experiments, the concept of time as a physical dimension, and not with any illusions of laugh-out-loud humour (occasional chuckle humour, at best) or of a gripping plot.

A Man Fell on your Car—Now What?

Landing Gear Kate Pullinger

Kate Pullinger is one of those author names that I’ve heard repeatedly since the time I arrived in Canada, first in my creative writing classes and later in my publishing career. She won the Governor General’s Award in 2009 for Mistress of Nothing, but I hadn’t read any of her work. But then she came to visit my class at SFU, to talk to us about digital and collaborative storytelling projects. One of the projects she had recently completed was Flight Paths, a multimedia reading experience that tells the story of Yacub, a  Pakistani who stows away on a plane hoping to go to the US. He hides in the landing gear of the plane, thinking he can get into the baggage compartment from there—but he can’t. As the plane descends into London’s Heathrow Airport, Yacub falls, lands on the roof of a car in a supermarket parking lot—and survives. The car belongs to Harriet, a mother who feels lost in her family life.

I’m not a big fan of multimedia reading. Adding sound, video or whatever, usually seems gimmicky, done “just because we can.” I don’t see the benefit of these other media to the story itself. That was how I felt about Flight Paths, but the story itself did catch my attention. So when Landing Gear (Doubleday Canada, 2014) came out a few months later, it felt like the right time to get a real sense of Pullinger’s writing.

Landing Gear expands on the story of Flight Paths by exploring the before and after. It begins with a transcript of Flight Paths, for those who had not experienced it. Then it rewinds to two years earlier, when Yacub was a migrant worker in Dubai, and Harriet read the news—and occasionally did her own reporting—for a radio station. There’s also the story of Harriet’s husband, Michael, and their son, Jack. And Emily, a documentary film student who loses her adoptive father and goes looking for her birth mother.

Their stories collapse into one when the events of Flight Paths take place. The story is briefly retold, involving different points of view than the ones in Flight Paths—a strategy that makes that bit of the story feel paradoxically new and redundant.The book as a whole would have been more effective without the Flight Paths transcript at the beginning, since those events are retold anyway, but I get making the tie-in more immediately clear.

Pullinger’s writing is impressively easy, and the story unfolds in a way that is exciting and unexpected. (Is there such a thing as an expected outcome to a story that begins a man falling from the sky on the roof of your car?) Every character has their secrets, and with only bits being revealed at a time, we are kept guessing all the way to the epilogue. Landing Gear reads almost like a mystery novel, but switch the plot gimmicks of a mystery for the psychological complexities of family, work and society that you’d except from any good literary work. It’s a wonderful combination, propelling us through the story with unwavering pace, end to end.

Reading with Sweaty Palms

Théodora Armstrong, Clear Skies, No Wind, 100% Visibility

I saw Théodora Armstrong read from the title story from her collection Clear Skies, No Wind, 100% Visibility (Astoria, 2013) at the end of last year’s Vancouver Writers’ Fest. A novice air traffic controller loses his first pilot and has to cope with his own inability to help. She only read part of the story, but it stuck with me. I wasn’t surprised when I saw her name on the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize shortlist, and I told myself I would get a copy. (Actually, I won of copy a this and every other Ethel Wilson nominee for this year’s prizes through the BC Book Prizes’ Facebook! But I read this one first.)

Armstrong didn’t win, but she certainly made her debut with a first-class set of stories. They take place all over BC and feature characters ranging from a high cuisine chef with anger management issues, to estranged sisters, to a curious young boy. But every story involves coping with something. The air traffic controller fails to save a pilot. The angry chef is about to have his first child but he knows he can’t handle parenthood. The sisters have to accept that they’ve grown apart, are no longer the girls from their childhood memories. And the boy, after making an animal trap, ends up with a dying young dog in his hands (and displays some startling sociopathic tendencies).

The story that has stayed with me since finishing the book is called “Mosquito Creek.” It is the last one in the collection, and the longest, which perhaps contributes to how well I remember it, but those aren’t the only reasons. It’s the story of a friendship between two teenage girls in North Vancouver, with all the elements of a teenage friendship. They are “best friends,” but one needs the other more. The adventurous free spirit of one and the need to feel included of the other seem to support each other well until alcohol, drugs and sex get into the mix. And like almost every teenage friendship, it can only go downhill. There’s all the drama of bad influences, a close suicide, and the boyfriend who dumps one friend for the other. And it’s all rendered in a way that even I feel for the girls—me! whose palms get clammy even just thinking of teenagers getting mixed with drugs and alcohol!

I was right there with them. That’s a real testament to Armstrong’s writing. And “Mosquito Creek” wasn’t the only story with scenarios that make me uncomfortable; they showed up throughout the book, and even when my hands were wet enough I worried about the pages (yes) I was compelled to keep going.

(And it made me wonder—is that what a typical teenage experience is like? Or is that just what good stories are made of? Either way, I feel like I understand teenagers a little better.)

On Life of Pi, Plagiarism and the Media

Max e os felinos, Life of Pi, plagiarism

In a first-year creative writing course, each student was asked to bring their favourite book to class and speak to its qualities. Yann Martel’s Life of Pi was one of my classmates’ selection. Her enthusiasm was contagious—until she mentioned, in passing, a plagiarism claim made against it. She didn’t know much about the case, other than that Martel’s book had taken cues from a Brazilian title, and that no formal lawsuit was ever filed. The possibility of plagiarism was the only thing that stuck with me, and for years I refused to read Life of Pi, or even watch the movie. But I was also curious—what was this Brazilian book that inspired such a widely successful Canadian title?

Turns out it was not a well-known title, but written by a popular writer, Moacyr Scliar. Max e os felinos was originally published in Portuguese in 1981, then translated into English (Max and the Cats) and French (Max et les chats) in 1990 and 1991. Though not directly, it was probably the English edition that eventually inspired Martel to write his Booker Prize–winning novel. And it was the Booker Prize that stirred up the controversy: no articles about Life of Pi even mentioned Scliar until the Booker announcement in October of 2002.1 The discussion started when Martel admitted the influence of Scliar’s story had on his. In the “Author’s Note” to Life of Pi, Martel thanks Scliar for “the spark of life”2, and “in every interview I’ve done, print, radio and television, I’ve mentioned where I got my premise.”3 But perhaps this overstated the role Max and the Cats played in Life of Pi.

Both stories show the character’s early life, their trans-oceanic crossing, and the unfolding of their lives. Both young men emigrate from the country of their birth against their will. Max flees Germany after having an affair with the wife of a Nazi, while Pi’s father decides to sell his zoo and emigrate to Canada. The ships they travel on both happen to be carrying zoo animals—Pi’s because some of their animals are being sold to American and Canadian zoos, and Max’s because one of the other passengers is a zoo proprietor—and both sink under mysterious circumstances that are presumed intentional. Both men manage to find vacant lifeboats, and are joined by surprise passengers: a jaguar in Max’s case; and in Pi’s, a hyena, a zebra, an orangutan and a tiger, which soon kills the other animals. Max and Pi are thus each left to drift the seas with their felines. And both survive: Max is soon rescued by a passing ship, and Pi drifts into the shore of Mexico after 227 days. Both young men tell of their feline companions, and neither is believed.

But the similarities end there. “Martel devotes much more narrative space to [the cat incident] (211 pages out of 354) than does Scliar (17 pages out of 99).”4 Most of Scliar’s narrative focuses on Max’s life before and after the incident; Martel elaborates on Pi’s childhood but offers very little on his life in Canada. The part of Max that begat Pi is little more than an episode of the greater narrative. Further, Max and the Cats is “a political allegory in which [the jaguar] is a symbol of Nazism or of the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil when Max and the Cats was first published.” For Max, the jaguar is a symbol of the Nazi rule.5  Life of Pi, above all, “repudiates the claim that reason is the sole arbiter of truth or reality.” For Pi, the tiger represents beauty and subjectivity, as in art and religion.6 While Max’s story is told in a strictly realistic style, racing through large chunks of time to fit an entire lifetime in a novella, Martel takes his time with Pi’s story, allowing an unnecessary amount of detail to populate some scenes, making for a self-validating magical hyperrealism.

But if the two narratives are different enough that a plagiarism lawsuit would be absurd, how did this become a “scandal”?7

It boils down to three things: cultural protection, misreading, and ignorance.

Cultural protection is the most understandable. In an article for The New York Times, Larry Rohter, wrote that Scliar “lamented that though Brazil produced ‘a world-class literature that ought to be recognized on its merits, we only get attention when something extravagant like this occurs.'” This was the feeling of much of the Brazilian press at the time, citing instances of supposed plagiarism and cultural plundering by Daphne du Maurier, Rod Stewart, Paul Simon and others.8 The continuous and increasing influx of North American and European culture since the late twentieth century has caused many Brazilians to fear the loss of national culture. It is no surprise that when Brazilians saw the work of one of their own reflected in the highly acclaimed Life of Pi without permission they shook their fists and called for justice.9

The issue of permission here is also key. In an essay about the incident, Scliar says it only bothered him that Martel never got in touch. “In Martel’s position I would have sought to inform the author,” he wrote. “In the preface … he attributes the ‘spark of life’ to me.10 But doesn’t go into details, doesn’t mention Max and the Cats.”11 Had Martel consulted Scliar on the matter, the entire debacle might have been avoided.

When a member of the press misreads something, they are surprisingly capable of propelling misinformation. Among the Brazilian press there was a feeling that Martel had dismissed the literary merit of Scliar’s work and, by extension, Brazilian literature in general. Around the time of the Booker Prize, Martel wrote an essay for the website of Powell’s Books12 on the origins of Life of Pi in which he referred to a negative review of Max and the Cats by John Updike as his only contact with the story. (More on this shortly.) In covering the case, Brazilian magazine Veja quoted the article: “The story did not get out of Martel’s head for years. ‘Oh, how this story could prosper in my hands,’ he lamented.”13 This single passage—the only line from the Powell’s essay that Veja quoted—is ripe with editorial bias.14 Martel certainly sounds dismissive. But the flavour of the wording here lends itself to a misinterpretation of Martel’s writing, and beyond what Veja chose to print, the tone is quite different: “Oh, the wondrous things I could do with this premise. … But—damn!—the idea had been faxed to the wrong muse. … I didn’t really want to read the book. … Why put up with a brilliant premise ruined by a lesser writer. Worse, what if Updike had been wrong? What if not only the premise but also its rendition were perfect? Best to move on.”15 So Martel wasn’t simply being dismissive; nor was he relying solely on Updike’s review, or mulling over Scliar’s story for years. He in fact stepped away from Max for his own sake; to avoid being plagued by a great idea that had already been taken. Veja‘s startling misrepresentation of Martel’s feelings toward Scliar’s work are, unfortunately, fairly representative of the Brazilian feelings at the time.16

But by far the most influential (and baffling) aspect of this case is the amount of ignorance17 in any account of the circumstances. It began with Martel’s own essay for Powell’s. As I mentioned, he attributes his only contact with Max and the Cats to a negative review written by John Updike for The New York Times Book Review. Except the only review The New York Times has on file for Max and the Cats is a glowing one written by Herbert Mitgang; Updike himself has no memory of reviewing Max; and neither The New York Review of Books nor The New Yorker (which could be confused for the NYT) could find reviews to match Martel’s description.18 “Clearly I got some of my facts wrong,” Martel wrote to defend himself. “So, I got it wrong. So what?”19 And, certainly, that he was simply mistaken—rather than being deceitful—is very likely. But his neglect to verify his sources before publishing the essay has caused both Scliar and himself excessive grief.

And the ignorance does not end there. It appears that, on or around the time of the Booker Prize, there were no critics who actually took the time to read both Life of Pi and Max and the Cats, neither in the Brazilian press nor in the English world. The early articles that reference Max and the Cats are all painfully inaccurate: The Guardian described Max as “a Jewish zookeeper [who] ends up in a lifeboat with a black panther.”20 Max’s religion is never stated; he is not a zookeeper; and his cat is a jaguar. In fact, the image of the black panther persists—even in the otherwise well-informed New York Times article by Larry Rohter, who interviewed Scliar personally.21 Rohter even admitted: “It is unclear if anyone has yet read the two novels side by side to see if they are alike beyond their shared plot line.”

How can a critic make a comparison—a plagiarism claim!—without having both works fresh in their mind? The entire incident evolved on hearsay. Martel read a review of Max and the Cats, but not the book itself, and several years later was inspired by his perceived version of the premise to write Life of Pi, which went on to win the Booker Prize. The Brazilian press catches wind of this, half-remembers the twenty-year-old novella, and without reading Pi calls out, “Plagiarism!” This sparks an international debate, but every critic who weighs in does so too quickly, without taking the time to read both books, making claims based on other uninformed articles that are already around.

As time passed, the debate settled—not only because there was some distance from the incident, but because critics actually had the time to read. In 2004, Florence Stratton claimed that “critics who had read both novels found the similarities to be superficial.” And as Peter Yan put it, “The Booker Prize controversy is a lesson in reading.”22 Perhaps; but it was also an example of modern journalism. Hungry for news and eager to get the first scoop, periodicals often run bits of news, especially on social media, that are unverified. It’s unfortunately common to see a legitimate newspaper run a story fabricated by The Onion. Worse still, even articles that seem well-informed rarely cite their sources. How long can this go? Until when can our hunger for immediate news surpass our need for verifiable, verified facts, to the point that a ten-year old controversy of misinformation resurfaces with the release of a film adaptation? My own prejudices against Life of Pi ended only when I read Max e os felinos and Life of Pi in sequence. How many people are willing to take the time and do the same? The number, I think, is insignificant.