Category Archives: Book Reviews

The Battle of the Sexes is Bullshit: A Review of Stephen Marche’s The Unmade Bed (2017)

imagesAt the dramatic climax of Traffic (2000), Michael Douglas’s character, the guy in charge of the War on Drugs, breaks down in the middle of a press conference and goes off-script: “If there is a War on Drugs then our own families have become the enemy. How can you wage war on your own family?” The overarching message of Stephen Marche’s The Unmade Bed (2017) is of a similar stamp: namely, that the martial language employed by “social justice warriors” and “men’s rights activists” is a toxic dead-end. The Battle of the Sexes is bullshit: “Rather than enrich the realm of politics with the difficult business of intimate life, identity politics flattens the personal until it fits into established intellectual categories.” If the hawkish ideologues who fan the flames of the “Gender Wars” in Social Media Land are to be believed, then our own families have become the enemy. But how can you wage war on your own family? And why would you want to? Your spouse isn’t the enemy: “The central conflict of domestic life right now is not mothers against fathers, or even conflicting ideas of motherhood or gender. It is the family against money.”

The Unmade Bed is a deeply moral book. And Marche treats his subject with all of the seriousness it deserves. But it’s also a remarkably funny book. The following scene is a case in point: “I was at a bachelor party, one of those bizarre rituals in which men have to stoop to their stereotype as a kind of recognition of common brutality, and we were all drunkenly heading to a strip club when my wife called. She needed to talk. A man she worked with called her ‘Honey.’ It pissed her off. It pissed me off. It pissed me off that this classic old-school garbage should survive. And so I found myself enraged, genuinely enraged at the sexism of a world that would call my wife ‘Honey’ just as I was entering a business in which I was going to pay to see women naked. Such are the everyday minor anti-epiphanies of living through the twenty-first-century rearrangement of gender. They subtract from rather than add to what I thought I knew about myself and others.”

Marche’s discussion of housework in the last chapter is equally hilarious: “Housework is the macho bullshit of women. And, in this light, it is perhaps not surprising that men have not started doing more housework. Men might be willing to lose the garbage of their own gender stereotypes, but why should they take on the garbage of another? Equality is coming, but not the way we expected. The future does not involve men doing more housework. . . . Caring less is the hope of the future. Housework is perhaps the only political problem in which doing less and not caring are the solution, where apathy is the most progressive and sensible attitude. Fifty years ago it was perfectly normal to iron sheets and vacuum drapes; they were necessary tasks. The solution to the inequalities of dusting wasn’t dividing the dusting; it was not doing the dusting at all. The solution to the gender divide in housework generally is that simple: Don’t bother. Leave the stairs untidy. . . . Never make the bed. . . . A clean house is the sign of a wasted life, truly. Eventually we’ll all be living in perfect egalitarian squalor.”

As Marche demonstrates, in loving detail, we’re all in this together, whether we like it or not, and we’re going to have to find a way to muddle through it together. We didn’t create this mess, this mess of world-historical proportions, but it’s ours to clean up: “Instead of furious despair, what our moment demands is humility and compassion.”

—John Faithful Hamer, Parenting in the Age of Studies Have Shown (2017)

The Breathtaking Hypocrisy of Gary Hall’s Pirate Philosophy

41b6jium8zl-_sx336_bo1204203200_The hypocrisy of Gary Hall’s new book is nothing short of breathtaking. Pirate Philosophy (2016) is an expensive book ($54.20) that rails against the profit motive, a jargon-laden academic book that rails against the inaccessibility of academia, a poorly written book that rails against the declining quality of academic writing, and a profoundly disorganized book that rails against the scattered nature of twenty-first-century academic life.

I wanted to like this book. Really, I did. Because Hall addresses so many issues which are dear to my heart, such as: the obnoxious paywalls that increasingly prevent citizens from accessing research their tax dollars paid for; the misguided MBA logic that’s come to govern most of our universities; and the hypocrisy of “radical theorists advocating a politics of the Commons, commoning and communism, yet appearing to let little of this politics have an impact on the decisions they make (or that are made for them) regarding their own work, business, role, and practices as authors” (12). He promises to show us how to fight the neoliberal corporatization of higher education. He promises to show us how to transcend the neoliberal model of the entrepreneurial academic. And he promises to show us how philosophers and theorists can best support student protesters and the anti-austerity movement. But he fails to deliver.

At times, even he seems to be aware of how silly his book is: “I am aware that some readers may be scratching their heads at this point over the seeming contradiction evident in the fact that the argument I am presenting here is being made in yet another conventional monograph, signed with a singular author’s name, and published with a brand-name press” (98). Hall never really makes sense of these glaring inconsistencies. Instead, like a therapy junkie I dated briefly in the 1990s, he seems to believe that telling us that he’s aware of the problem—and showing us how smart and self-aware he is—is enough. Guess what, Gary? It’s not.

Dwayne Booth (aka Mr. Fish), “Can I Have a Grant?” (1991)

Nassim Nicholas Taleb once quipped: “The longest book I’ve ever read was 205 pages.” Thinking along similar lines, I shall henceforth be able to say that the longest book I’ve ever read was 159 pages. Pirate Philosophy brings to mind Nietzsche’s description of a scholarly book in The Gay Science (1887): “In a scholar’s book there is nearly always something oppressive, oppressed: the specialist emerges somehow—his eagerness, his seriousness, his ire, his overestimation of the nook in which he sits and spins, his hunchback.” Gary Hall has a rather sizable hunchback. It’s composed of abstruse prose. And it renders his radical political pretensions vaguely ridiculous—because, as Saul Alinsky puts it in Rules for Radicals (1971): “It does not matter what you know about anything if you cannot communicate to your people. In that event you are not even a failure. You’re just not there.”

The kind of constipated scholar Nietzsche ends up celebrating in “Faced by a Scholarly Book” is a high-minded elitist with little interest in politics. He does not wish to be read by the people; he wishes to be read only by his peers. What’s more, like the philosophers Marx mocks in his Theses on Feuerbach (1888), he does not seek to change the world; he merely wishes to interpret it in various ways. Gary Hall, is, to some extent, the very opposite of this monkish denizen of the Ivory Tower. It’s obvious (indeed, at times, painfully obvious) that he desperately wants to be cool, relevant, hip, accessible, and democratic: a man of the people, an activist, a revolutionary. He wants to do more than just interpret the world; he wants to change it. But he won’t. Not with a scholarly book like this.

—John Faithful Hamer, The Goldfish (2016)

Review: GENERATION X by Douglas Coupland

I picked up this novel hoping to learn from the source what defines me – what defines membership in Generation X, the generation I’d always been told that I was part of. The first thing I learned was that I’d been lied to… as initially coined by Douglas Coupland, Generation X consists of people born in the late 1950s and 1960s, people who, at the novel’s publication date in 1991, were in their mid-to-late twenties. As someone born in 1975, I was too young to belong. So Generation X, the novel, isn’t about people like me, it’s a sketch of the people I knew as I was growing up.

I think ‘sketch’ is the mot juste because Generation X isn’t a novel in the sense that most of us are used to: there’s no character arc in sight, and the plot arc is basically flat. Indeed, the plot of this novel could be summed up as ‘three twentysomethings living on the outskirts of Palm Springs hang out, tell stories, go home for Christmas, and then move to Baja California’. The meat of the book lies in the second clause of that description. Andy, Claire, and Dag, the three main characters (I hesitate to use the term protagonists), spend much of their time recounting elaborate tales to each other, or rather parables which artfully reveal their attitudes towards their selves and their world. Sometimes these tales have a meaning that is easily unpacked. In one, a woman decides to meditate in solitude for seven years, but finds out too late that her spiritual program, which she’d borrowed without careful study from an Asian monastery, relied on a different calendar and that she’d overdone it, and that enlightenment would come after only one year, and that the final six years, which ended up being fatal, were redundant. In other words, don’t spend too much time in your own head. Other stories the trio tells each other are more opaque, but Coupland’s skill as a storyteller makes them engaging even when they’re unclear.

So what, according to Coupland, defines Generation X?

Continue reading Review: GENERATION X by Douglas Coupland

Ayn Rand Really Does Suck

“Just as no one writes to prove to men that they have faces, there is no need to prove to them that they have self-love. This self-love is the instrument of our conservation; it resembles the instrument that perpetuates the species: it is necessary, it is dear to us, it gives us pleasure, and it must be hidden.”—Voltaire, Philosophical Dictionary (1764)

the-fountainhead-bookI’ve just recently finished rereading Ayn Rand for the first time in 20 years. I don’t think I fully realized when I was young what a terrible writer she is. Seriously, it’s embarrassing. And to those who say that her great ideas make the terrible prose worth it: um, not so much. Her reasoning is actually worse than her prose. Her use of straw man arguments is especially egregious, as is her shocking ignorance of history. When I read thinkers I expect to hate, thinkers like Foucault, I’m almost always pleasantly surprised to find that they’re richer and more interesting than both their detractors and their supporters might lead you to believe. But Ayn Rand is the exception that proves this rule. This is one of those rare cases wherein the worst caricature of a thinker’s thought is actually the most accurate: people really do like Rand because she tells them what they want to hear: namely, that it’s okay to be a selfish asshole. People are, it seems, surprisingly good at lowering their standards when you’re telling them what they want to hear.

A devout Randian recently told me that he regards Ayn Rand has “one of the best fiction writers of all time.” What’s more, he said that she is best compared with Dostoevsky. I’m finding it hard to express how completely full of shit this assessment is in an intelligent fashion. But I’m gonna try. You should know, incidentally, that I reread The Brothers Karamazov last summer, and I reread The Fountainhead last week. So I figure I’ve earned the right to weigh in on their relative literary merits. Okay, well, first and foremost, I think it ought to be obvious, even to most ardent Randians, that these two books aren’t even in the same league. That they don’t even live in the same literary universe is probably closer to the truth. So far as I can tell, the only thing The Brothers Karamazov and The Fountainhead have in common is that they’re both printed on paper.

The fact that you can say that you regard Ayn Rand as one of the best fiction writers of all time—and that she’s best compared with the likes of Dostoevsky—suggests to me that, regardless of your politics, you are woefully lacking in aesthetic judgment. Then again, maybe you were born without an intellectual conscience. Maybe that’s what’s missing. But perhaps that’s not the problem. Maybe you have an intellectual conscience which you simply stopped listening to years ago. Regardless, you’ve just lost all credibility with me. I wouldn’t even accept a movie recommendation from you now, much less a book recommendation. I wouldn’t even trust you to look after my pet goldfish. Saying you like Rand is one thing; saying she’s as good as Dostoevsky is another thing altogether. The first is a forgivable eccentricity, the second is a sin against the Holy Spirit of Literature. You have been banished—forthwith!—in the Inferno of my mind, to an especially kitschy circle of Hell reserved for Céline Dion fans, people who still wear Uggs, Dr. Fredric Brandt, and everyone who still believes in chemtrails.

But seriously, the most sympathetic estimation of Ayn Rand I can muster views her as roughly comparable to John Bunyan: Atlas Shrugged (1957) as a kind of 20th-century equivalent of The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678). Few would accuse Bunyan of being a great writer or a penetrating thinker. And yet denying his immense influence would be a serious mistake; the same is probably true of Rand. What’s more, I must confess that if I squint, and try hard, I can actually see how Rand’s books might have a salutary effect on a certain kind of person: a woman, for instance, who’s been brought up in a very traditional, very conservative, very religious environment—wherein she was taught to put the needs of others first at all times, to a pathological extent. I can sorta see how Rand’s writings might help someone like this find balance. But, as is so often the case with prescriptive writers, those most likely to profit from them are least likely to read them. So far as I can tell, those who least need Rand are most likely to read her.

Why do we hate Ayn Rand so much? I think it’s because we secretly suspect that she might be right. Civilization is now, as it has always been, an achievement. Freud saw this with unusual clarity (maybe it was all that coke?). We all feel the call of the wild tugging at us from time to time, we all hear a little demon’s voice whispering in our ear: beckoning us to call it quits, give up on this marriage of convenience we refer to as Society, and do our own thing. Rand seems to have been possessed by this little demon. She found a way to channel its elemental energy and speak in its sirenic voice. Therein lies her mesmeric power. Therein lies her power to corrupt. Rand’s allure is, much like Rousseau’s allure, the allure of a promise of escape: an escape from the hated prison of modern life. Of course it never really delivers; but like the allure of forbidden fruit, that just makes it all the more alluring. Rand’s craziest and most hysterical critics said that she was an enemy of civilization. They were right.

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2016)

*TRUE STORY: My name is John and the first time I read Atlas Shrugged I was living on Galt. This seemed deeply meaningful to sixteen-year-old me. Galt is a street in Montreal NOT named after the hero of Atlas Shrugged. But stop snickering, Señor Smartypants! Because a friend of mine recently moved to Nebraska, and he tells me that there is in fact a John Galt Boulevard in Omaha. Crazy, I know. But there it is.

Something Really New for a Change: A Review of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Antifragile

“And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field”—Genesis 2:20 (King James Version)

Theophanes the Cretan, “Adam Names the Beasts of the Field,” Monastery of Saint Nicholas (Metéora, Greece)

Academic culture, as presently constituted, seems to reward scholars who do one of two things: (1) repackage a commonplace with some sort of fancy-sounding language (e.g., saying “H2O” instead of “water”); or, (2) repackage an existing concept, like, say, hegemony, give it a new name, and then confidently declare that it’s a “BRAND NEW” idea that explains just about everything. Most of what passes for fresh new scholarship is in fact one of these two sleights of hand. Perhaps that’s why the central concept of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s new book—“antifragility”—is so initially off-putting. Because Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder (2012) is the exception that proves this rule.

41y+-2A1XZL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_Taleb’s central idea actually is something new. It’s not a repackaging of some old thing, nor is it an abstruse articulation of a commonplace. All to the contrary. Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s concept of antifragility actually gives name to a “beast of the field” that didn’t have a name, something which, when you think about it, clearly exists, around us, in us, between us, everywhere! Once you grasp the concept of antifragility—truly grasp it—it does precisely what any good concept ought to do: it makes clear things that were previously unclear; it gives you the language you need to talk about certain things, things which we really need to talk about if we’re going to make sense of this divine comedy around us, which we like to call the world.

—John Faithful Hamer, The Goldfish (2016)

Sticks and Stones may Break your Bones, but Aaron Haspel Draws Blood: A Review of Everything: A Book of Aphorisms (2015)

“I approach deep problems such as I do cold baths: fast in, fast out. That this is no way to get to the depths, to get deep enough, is the superstition of those who fear water, the enemies of cold water; they speak without experience. Oh, the great cold makes one fast! And incidentally: does a matter stay unrecognized, not understood, merely because it has been touched in flight; is only glanced at, seen in a flash? Does one absolutely have to sit firmly on it first? Have brooded on it as on an egg? Diu noctuque incubando, as Newton said of himself? At least there are truths that are especially shy and ticklish and can’t be caught except suddenly—that one must surprise or leave alone.”—Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (1887)

41XBc2HTu0L._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_In a letter to a friend, Nietzsche maintained that the only readers who could really claim to have understood his Zarathustra (1891) were those who were, at times, profoundly wounded by it. I couldn’t help but think of this remark as I read Everything (2015). Although this book is quite short and extraordinarily clear, it’s not an easy read. Far from it actually. Haspel says that he asks but “one thing of literature: that it draw blood.” And he delivers on this score, again and again, with aphorisms like the following: (i) “Whatever you think you like — are you sure you like it? Or do you like being the sort of person who likes it?” (ii) “Whatever you have done, you are the sort of person who would do that.” (iii) “It never seems to occur to the teacher who complains of inattentive students that he may not be worth attending to.” (iv) “If you want to destroy your marriage talk about it.”

But these are only some of the most obviously challenging aphorisms contained in this volume. The more insidious ones are like time-bombs or retroviruses: I rarely “get” them the first time I read them. Don’t even necessarily get them when I’m reading them. Instead, something happens or someone says something, days or even weeks later, and a bell goes off in my head and I think “a-ha”—that’s what he meant! For instance, this aphorism (which I posted the other day on Facebook) is loved at first for almost all of the wrong reasons: “If it has never crossed your mind that you might be stupid, you are.” People who’ve been (like me), at times, painfully aware of their inadequacy, read this and feel smart. Until, that is, they realize, a few days or weeks later, that although failing the aphorism’s test proves that you’re stupid, passing it doesn’t prove that you’re smart. A week or two later, however, it gets worse: the self-congratulatory glow loses all of what’s left of its luster when you realize that you can be stupid and know you’re stupid.

Some of Haspel’s aphorisms are laugh-out-loud funny, such as: (i) “Passion, n. An overwhelming urge to spend your life at something you don’t do especially well.” (ii) “The ideal work environment for a writer is jail.” (iii) “Blaming an actor for being a narcissist is like blaming a tiger for being a carnivore.” (iv) “It is when we recognize our hopeless inadequacy at everything else that we discover our vocation.” And some of them are straightforwardly brilliant, such as this one, which is, to my mind, the best summary of the Socratic way of life I have ever read: “A grudging willingness to admit error does not suffice; you have to cultivate a taste for it.”

Still, if you’re looking for the kind of writer beloved of avid readers of The New Yorker—the kind who knows how to make his educated liberal audience feel superior to all of those yahoos in the sticks who hunt, pray, vote Republican, and believe in weird stuff—don’t buy this book. Seriously, don’t. Because you’ll hate it. Haspel holds up a mirror, and, trust me, you’re not going to like everything you see. I know I didn’t. If Haspel has an overarching message that he wants to impart it’s that we’re not exempt from the follies of our day, even (and perhaps especially) when we think we are: “We are more like our contemporaries than we imagine, and less like our ancestors.”

I read a great deal (probably more than I should), and I’ve been a great lover of the aphoristic genre for over twenty years. Yet never before have I encountered so many aphorisms written by a contemporary of such a high quality: Haspel is in a league of his own. At his best, Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s aphorisms in The Bed of Procrustes (2010) rival those of Epicurus (e.g., “Love without sacrifice is like theft” is something I wish I had written). But my fellow Canadian, George Murray, probably deserves the prize for second place. His most recent collection of aphorisms, Glimpse (2010), is often outstanding (e.g., “Rubble becomes ruin when the tourists arrive”). Even so, the collection is scandalously uneven, and it really doesn’t hold a candle to Everything. To wit: Aaron Haspel is the greatest master of the aphoristic form writing in English today. It’s always hard to know which books will stand the test of time, which books will be read 300 years from now. But if I was a betting man, I’d bet on Everything.

—John Faithful Hamer, The Goldfish (2016)

REDSHIRTS, by John Scalzi

[SPOILERS for a three-year-old book to follow]

Redshirts won the 2013 Hugo Award for best Sci-Fi novel, and it received a lot of buzz at the time for being a great read. I dutifully added the citation to my ‘to-read’ pile and a few days ago was able to check it out digitally from my local library. E-books are superior to print books in many ways, but one advantage of print is that you can tell simply by holding it – perhaps after a glance at the font size – how long it will take to finish. I surprised myself by starting and finishing Redshirts in a single day: a round trip to Toronto from Mississauga accounted for the bulk of it, with about an hour at home to finish it off. As you may gather from this, it’s a light read.

The story is set aboard the starship Intrepid, flagship of the Universal Union, a starship which takes on a variety of missions – diplomatic, military, exploration – with the common feature being that on each mission, one of the junior crew dies. Senior staff, including the brash captain and the coolly unemotional, alien science officer, are oblivious to this trend, but the junior crew certainly aren’t, all of whom find elaborate ways to avoid going on inevitably-lethal away missions. In other words, Redshirts is essentially a parody fanfic of the original Star Trek  TV show. In the first half of the novel, the humour is awfully broad, and consists almost entirely of pointing out the ways in which the Intrepid and its officers don’t behave in the way we’d expect a real military craft and crew to act. The bridge chairs don’t have seat belts! The uniforms don’t have pockets! The bridge shakes, no matter where or how the ship has been damaged! Science crew are always able to come up with an answer to the problem of the moment, but only at the last minute, and they always miss something that the science officer notices immediately! This is bad enough, but the humour worsens as it gets more meta, and starts pointing out the way that the conventions of televised fiction don’t line up with reality. In real life, you see, people rarely stop to give expository speeches explaining the problem of the moment, especially to people who are already familiar with it, or to their subordinates.

These insights are hardly original: people have been making these gibes at Star Trek‘s expense since the show aired, almost fifty years ago. I remember David Gerrold making the pockets-and-seat-belts jokes in his Star Trek memoir, and that came out in 1973. The only original bit that author John Scalzi offers is a novel explanation for a notorious situation aboard the Enterprise: the fact that, whenever the senior staff walk the corridors of the ship, the junior staff around them are all hurriedly moving around them, never stopping to talk with their superiors or with each other. It turns out that the crew are afraid if they catch an officer’s attention, they’ll be ordered to join a presumably-fatal away mission, so they avoid the command staff wherever possible.

The only thing sustaining interest in the first part of the story is the question of why the away missions are so dangerous. I was expecting a different answer than the one the story eventually gives us. The superficial emotional tone of the first half of the book is lamely comic, but it’s a thin cover for a thick layer of horror. Crew on away missions die, and in terrible ways. Knowing this, the crew go to great lengths to avoid going on these missions… and this includes finding ways to ensure their fellows, not they themselves, get assigned first. This subversion of solidarity is chilling, and it only becomes worse on the missions themselves, where the crew – out of sight of their commanders – begin to actively sabotage each other, to ensure that someone else become the necessary sacrifice. The mood is genuinely and surprisingly bleak. Unfortunately, that mood isn’t sustained, because Scalzi can’t avoid having to explain why the Intrepid is the way that it is. (The burden of science fiction is that everything must have an explanation.) I had assumed, given the established tone, something along the lines of The Cabin in the Woods, a roughly simultaneous exercise in genre metafiction: the crew die as sacrifices to some alien force, and the bridge crew are complicit with this arrangement to preserve what they see as the greater good. Scalzi goes a different way: it turns out that the Intrepid and its crew are all fictional, the stars of an early-twentieth-century TV show, and its junior crew die so often because the head writer of the show is a hack and doesn’t know any other way to build dramatic tension.

With that mystery solved, the book’s second half becomes even less engaging than the first, as the story transforms from a parody of Star Trek generally to a parody of Star Trek IV. In place of dangerous away missions and ensigns scheming to make someone, anyone else get killed, we have the book’s viewpoint characters, the newly-minted junior staff of the Intrepid, travel to 2012 Burbank, California, to confront the creators of the science-fiction show that has taken over their lives. Aside from more lame jokes in the key of fish-out-of-water, Scalzi offers another interesting bit: the Intrepid crew are dopplegangers for the actors who played their parts on the series, leading to several cases of mistaken identity. Most notably, one of the crew is a perfect physical copy of the showrunner’s son, who appeared on the show briefly but then, days before the Intrepid crew arrived, had a serious motorcycle accident, leaving him mangled and brain-dead. His grieving father was about to pull the plug, but in exchange for his son’s life being saved by the deus ex machina of Otherworldly Medical Science, agrees to change his show such that the junior crew won’t die anymore. Mission accomplished, our heroes return to their world, confident that they’ll own their own destinies now, or at least as much as anyone in their situation can.

If that was all, I’d rate Redshirts as a slight read, as fanfic with delusions of grandeur. But the entire exercise is redeemed after the book proper ends. I suspect Scalzi intuited as much, given that the full title of his book is Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas. It’s those codas that pay the whole thing off. They deal with the people left behind in 2012, who are now aware that their TV show isn’t just a basic-cable triviality, but is also a machine with existential significance. In one coda, the show’s head writer battles writer’s block, as he’s terrified that if he writes about someone dying, someone actually will die. In another, an actress deals with the fact that her doppleganger was the love of someone’s life, and that when her doppleganger died, the grief almost destroyed him. And yet she, the original, is alone, and has inspired such passion in nobody. And in the most powerful epilogue, the showrunner’s son becomes aware that his body and brain had been smashed into wreckage, and that impossibly, he’s been given a second chance at youth and health… and yet his life to that point has been wasted in shallow pursuits. Of all people, he deserves the gift he’s been given the least. So what should he do, having received it?

I found the codas genuinely moving, and far more engaging than the entire novel that preceded them. Science fiction is supposed to be a literature of ideas, and these ideas – what significance do our lives have, and how should we live them? – are much more interesting than wondering why, in the future, military uniforms don’t have pockets.

—Andrew Miller

NO MORAL PROGRESS: A Review of David Fiore’s Darkling I Listen

Darkling I ListenAnnoying and self-righteous at times, lovable and insightful at others, Mike Borden, the protagonist of Darkling I Listen, is a character that I will not soon forget. Like all of the characters in this intensely human novel, Mike is believable precisely because Fiore treats him, his life, and his experiences, with so much respect.

Typically modern themes such as self-discovery and the search for authenticity are stripped of their glamour in Fiore’s hands, for he refuses to see character development and change over time through the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia or the cheapening lens of moral progress. Instead, every love affair (no matter how brief), every event, every moment, indeed every state of mind, is treated like a free-standing end in itself, which does not need to be justified by the future, much less the past.

Fiore’s characters do not pass through “stages” on the road to some sort of higher perfection; truth with a capital “T” is not exalted here, and there are no dramatic conversions on the Road to Damascus. Instead, illusions that have grown tired and old are quietly shed like autumn leaves. Change is neither to be feared nor reified in Fiore’s world; it is to be seen merely for what it is, inevitable and ultimately tragic: tragic, because a beautiful moment that has passed is gone, and a love lost is a love lost forever, not some sort of educational exercise.

Fiore’s flexible prose reflects this sensibility, changing as the characters change throughout the novel. Indeed, there is no authoritative narrative voice or overarching mood to be found in Darkling I Listen. That is not to say that judgments are not made, for this novel is filled with them. When flaws or contradictions are described, however, they are described with compassion, love, and the sensible humility that comes with a good memory.

—John Faithful Hamer, The Village Explainer (2016)

Saint-Douglass the Not-so-Divine: A Review of David Fiore’s Hypocritic Days

hypocritic daysThe tall, dark-haired swain grinned. “Douglass, there’s a rumour going round that you’re some kind of a saint.” Nora whacked him in the back of the head. Gently. “I’ve always thought of myself as more of a Bodhisattva,” I replied. “A body-what-va?” he laughed. “I never know what he’s talking about either,” Eileen chimed in. “It’s Buddhist,” Nora explained. “A bodhisattva’s just an enlightened person who sticks around to help the rest of us out of jams.”—David Fiore, Hypocritic Days (2014)

Ever wonder what it would be like to travel back in time and hook up with Helen Chandler, cuckold Cyril Hume, and take your two-year-old mom to a matinee? Well, then, you really must get your hands on a copy of David Fiore’s wacky new novel, Hypocritic Days (2014).

The time-traveler is, at bottom, like the superhero, just a regular person with god-like power. Morally, intellectually, and emotionally, they’re just like us. That’s precisely what makes time-traveler stories like Hypocritic Days so compelling. Same is true of superhero stories like Spider-Man. If time-travelers and superheroes were as omniscient as Allah, as selfless as Jesus, and as wise as Buddha, they’d bore us to tears. What makes them interesting is their human, all-too-human flaws and limitations. At their worst, and most thoroughly debauched, they’re miserable, misanthropic monsters—Wolf-of-Wall-Street types—who hate humanity almost as much as they hate themselves. At their best, and most enlightened, they come to look a whole lot like the archetypal saint described, with Plutarchian precision, in Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers (1966): “Far from flying with the angels, [the saint] traces with the fidelity of a seismograph needle the state of the solid bloody landscape. His house is dangerous and finite, but he is at home in the world. He can love the shapes of human beings, the fine and twisted shapes of the heart. It is good to have among us such men, such balancing monsters of love.”

If you’re looking for a time-travelling freak show like The Butterfly Effect, Fiore’s novel is going to disappoint, because Douglass Infantino, the protagonist of Hypocritic Days, is a rather mild fellow who lacks the tempestuous temperament that so often accompanies great heroism and great villainy in a Dostoevsky novel. Though he makes mistakes, Douglass is basically a good person. Unlike Dorothea, there are things that Douglass simply will not do, regardless of the rationale. It’s not that he’s perfect or incorruptible; it’s just that his capacity for evil is, regardless of the timeline, rather limited. At his worst, he’s really just a garden-variety douche-bag, a minor-league heart-breaker, and a somewhat shitty friend. But at his best, ah, at his best, he shines; at his best, he’s a saint in precisely the sense intended by Leonard Cohen: “A saint does not dissolve the chaos; if he did the world would have changed long ago. I do not think that a saint dissolves the chaos even for himself, for there is something arrogant and warlike in the notion of a man setting the universe in order.”

Douglass isn’t Saint Douglass at the beginning of Hypocritic Days. Quite to the contrary. He initially goes back in time to fix history, save the world, and set the universe in order. But, to put it mildly, things really don’t go as planned. Incidentally, one of the great strengths of this novel is that Fiore makes Douglass pay for this hubris. Big time. But this is perhaps to be expected. After all, to anyone who was, like Fiore, raised in the Church of Marvel Comics, it seems perfectly obvious that with god-like power comes god-like responsibility. The creative geniuses behind the superhero genre have, by and large, dealt with these issues remarkably well. Moral philosophers like Stan Lee—co-creator of Spider-Man, X-Men, and countless other modern myths—have, from the start, been well aware of the deep issues raised by their experiments in ethics. The same cannot be said of the time-traveler genre.

If the superhero genre is defined by the problem of omnipotence, the time-traveler genre ought to be defined by the problem of omnipresence. But, by and large, it’s not. Hypocritic Days is a welcome exception to this rule. For instance, after discovering a photo album lovingly put together by his grandmother, Douglass has to face up to the moral implications of playing god with his grandfather’s life, and making value judgments about his grandparents’ marriage based on bias, incomplete information, and imperfect knowledge. Though short, it remains, for me, one of the most profoundly moving moments in the novel:

“Clearly taken by Eileen herself, these photos composed a mosaic of ironic yearning which expressed a part of her being that I had never understood before (in any of the three timelines we’d crossed paths in so far). She had been deeply in love with this man whom I had allowed to die. This was no rote romance, no unthinking slouch onto the gender treadmill. As limiting and as ultimately unfulfilling as the relationship had most definitely been, Eileen’s brilliant album robbed me of the luxury of pretending that her feelings for Pat had somehow been less ‘true’ to her psychological core than the extraordinary films I hoped she was on the verge of making. I returned the book to its station at the foot of the bed and crept guiltily out of Eileen and Pat’s room.”

If you’ve ever been tempted to conclude—with my Grade Eleven English teacher—that great literature and time travel don’t mix, read Hypocritic Days. It’ll disabuse you of that notion.

—John Faithful Hamer, The Village Explainer (2016)

Helen Chandler

Guy de Maupassant – the Complete Short Stories

Tl;dr: If you’ve never read Guy de Maupassant, definitely read “Boule de Suif‘, his first and most famous story. If you enjoyed that, I can recommend a few more. Maupassant is worth reading because of his clarity and brevity. He doesn’t flinch from displaying the dark side of human life, but that view into the dark side means that when he turns to satire, it’s delicious.

Occasionally I take on a reading project where I read as much of one author’s work as I can handle. One of these began when I picked up a cheap copy of a selection of Maupassant’s short stories, which I had barely begun when I foolishly left it on a bus. Looking for a replacement, I went to Project Gutenberg, where I was able to download the complete corpus of his short stories – thirteen volumes! – in one file. Here was something worth digging my teeth into.

What the typical reader knows of Maupassant is probably something like this: French writer, late nineteenth century, followed in the footsteps of Voltaire by exposing bourgeois morality as a sham, died insane from syphilis. To this I don’t have anything to add: I don’t know his biography, just his bibliography. So what did I learn from reading all these stories?

Firstly, they’re worth reading. Maupassant is everything I adore in short fiction: his stories have beginnings, middles, and endings, with sharply defined characters, and always have a point. Though not a moralist – he doesn’t seem to be keen for us to begin acting a different way – he does want us to feel something about his characters, and usually succeeds. Continue reading Guy de Maupassant – the Complete Short Stories