For most people, the title of Newfoundlander Edward Riche’s third novel comes across as a harmless little compliment—no matter whether you’re describing a person, a TV show, or a bottle of wine.
Elliot Jonson, however, is having none of it. The grumpy hero of Easy to Like is a struggling screenwriter and vintner (not to mention Canadian ex-pat) in California who’s fed up with trying to please the masses. Accordingly, his writing career is dead on its feet. The wine he produces is bitter and undrinkable, even by his own esoteric standards. So “easy” is out. And when a woman asks him at a tasting which of the wines on display he likes best, Elliot sneeringly replies, “Like isn’t a word I ever use.”
So one can only imagine his metafictional outrage at hearing that Easy to Like, the novel in which Elliot stars, is just that. It’s also a warm send-up of corporate ladder-climbing, the CBC, and our national oscillation between public self-deprecation and private smugness—Canada’s very own version of the humblebrag.
Or, to put it in terms Elliot would understand, it’s a lot closer to a crowd-pleasing Zinfandel than his beloved Châteauneuf.
Things get doubly complicated for Elliot when, in the face of an investigation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for some illegally smuggled roots, he tries to escape to France, only to wind up marooned in Toronto thanks to an expired passport. There, as much to pass the time as anything else, he bluffs his way into a job with the CBC executive as the new head of English TV programming. Whenever anyone questions his credentials, he tells them a mildly juicy Hollywood anecdote until their eyes go all starry.
Easy to Like hinges on several similarly far-fetched plot points, many of which are never given much rhetorical force, let alone plausible evidence. (Take note of, for instance, the tiny zebra hidden on the book’s dust jacket.) Elliot’s disinterested ascent through the Mother Corporation is amusing, but makes the book feel like it takes place in a cartoonish parallel universe, instead of the one we actually live in. The satire works, but not as well as it might.
Riche’s narration, meanwhile, is overly peppered with quips and jaunty asides. He also tends to dole out information unevenly; we learn more about three ditzy Californian housewives, none of whom show up again, in the novel’s opening scene than we do about Elliot’s only son, a former child star who’s now in jail and, apparently, making an unexpected conversion to Islam.
Faring slightly better is Riche’s dialogue, and better still the speeches he gives Elliot to spout off to his CBC colleagues—even if he’s making them up on the spot, and doesn’t believe a word of he’s saying.
As I say, on the whole, I like Riche’s novel. Yet Riche himself points to the flaw in this kind of faint praise during one of Elliot’s more honest internal monologues. “If you ‘liked’ something,” he thinks to himself, “it couldn’t be very good, could it? It would be enough, just enough to satisfy.”
True passion, he argues, is found in a subject’s ongoing failure to live up to its ideal: “If you loved something that much, you necessarily hated it.” Easy to Like inspires neither of these emotions.
House of Anansi, 296 pp, $29.95, hardcover
(review originally appeared in the Edmonton Journal, September 25, 2011)