Perrine Leblanc, Kolia (trans. David Scott Hamilton)

It might sound crazy to point out that a character born in a Siberian gulag in 1937 has it too easy in life, but that’s the unusual corner Perrine Leblanc’s debut novel paints itself into. Despite the fact that young Kolia begins his life surrounded by bodies either recently deceased or soon to be, the boy is handed one lucky break after another, eventually rising to the ranks of a nationally acclaimed circus clown in Moscow with an ease and fluidity that pushes past good luck and into the realm of disbelief.

In last weekend’s National Post, I reviewed Kolia, the debut novel from Quebec’s Perrine Leblanc.

Read the whole thing here.

Norm Sibum, The Traymore Rooms

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One of the great joys of fiction is watching a novel set up a problem that only it has the tools to solve. With long novels, that problem also tends to involve a balancing act of the reader’s time invested vs. the stimulation received. But a novel as long and cyclical as Norm Sibum’s The Traymore Rooms wears its problem on its sleeve even more pointedly: It asks, “How little territory can I possibly cover over 600 pages?” And that comes with a built-in dare to the reader: “How long can I trick you into sticking with me?”

Over at the National Post, I reviewed a 600-page debut novel (my copy is actually 730+, but who’s counting?) where almost nothing happens. It’s more complicated than that, of course—and not only because its author is a seasoned poet who knows exactly what he’s up to.

Read the whole thing here.

Carol Shaben, Into the Abyss

The tone of Into the Abyss is similarly overreaching. When Larry speaks, his voice is “deep with emotion.” Erik doesn’t just try to remember something: “a wisp of something forgotten feathered the edge of his consciousness.” Earlier, we’re told he “was banking flying hours like bonus points in a pinball game.” What this means, I have no idea. Quickly? Cumulatively? Is there an Addams Family theme, somehow?

Today in the National Post, I got to write about Carol Shaben’s Into the Abyss, which documents an infamous Alberta plane crash in the ’80s.

And yet Shaben’s book is dull, overwritten, and possibly fatally biased. Who knew? Read the full review here.

Alex Leslie, People Who Disappear

The other standout piece takes a similar kind of risk, and yields just as much reward. “People Who Are Michael” tells the story of a teenaged pop star’s rise to fame, but only through the prism of videos uploaded to his YouTube channel. He starts out high-voiced and anonymous, standing nervously in front of a Bart Simpson poster; before long he’s fending off legions of fans and marvelling at his own success. Then a dark twist in the middle turns the story into an electric cautionary tale.

I’m back in the pages of the National Post this weekend, this time with a review of the promising debut story collection from Vancouver’s Alex Leslie. My favourite story has my name in the title!

Read the whole thing here.

Robert Hough, Dr. Brinkley’s Tower

While working my way through Dr. Brinkley’s Tower, the fourth novel from Toronto’s Robert Hough, I kept getting that nagging feeling there was a reference being made that I couldn’t pin down. The cozy small-town setting, the travelling salesman hawking a life-changing construction project, the way the community rallies together in funny and unexpected ways—it all felt so familiar. What was Hough riffing on?

Then it came to me. The Simpsons. Season 4. “Marge vs. the Monorail.”

From this weekend’s National Post, my review of a lovely novel about Mexico, con artists, radio towers, and gumball machines. (All Simpsons references are, as usual, my own.)

John Jeremiah Sullivan, Pulphead

Broadly speaking, Sullivan is interested in American culture: from its sugary and omnipresent mainstream (MTV’s The Real World, Michael Jackson) to its dustier, quieter corners (forgotten blues records, ancient cave paintings in Tennessee). There’s not a bad piece in the bunch, most of which was originally written for GQ magazine, but Sullivan’s work hits the stratosphere when it achieves a delicate triangulation—simultaneously reporting the fine details of the piece, the big-picture implications and, most importantly, Sullivan’s personal relationship to each.

It took nearly a year, but I’m back in the pages of the National Post today with a review of John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead. Hooray! The book is superb—and come to think of it, you’d be hard pressed to find a more foolproof Christmas gift. Sullivan is a crowd-pleaser.

And I’m proud of the review, too; they really let me go to town. Read the full thing—including where I threaten to make out with my favourite passage—here.

Hannah Pittard, The Fates Will Find Their Way

Nobody knows where, exactly, Nora Lindell disappeared to, but the boys from her high school know one thing for sure: She’s not coming back.

The first pages of Hannah Pittard’s exquisite debut novel lay out all of the clues at their disposal. She went missing on Halloween—that much they agree on. But every other memory conflicts with someone else’s, with each boy absolutely positive that his is the correct version. A bus station is mentioned. Then an abortion clinic. Hot dogs. Movie theatres. Pay phones. Two of the boys swear they saw her climb into a stranger’s Pontiac Catalina. Another, feeling excluded, claims to have had sex with Nora the month before.

Before long, the departed 16-year-old has become a cipher, a repository for all of the boys’ repressed desires, feelings and fears. Not so much the sexual ones—they’re pretty upfront about their constantly redlining hormones—as those that run deeper, more elemental. Nora becomes a stand-in for everything that never was, but maybe could have been, had things worked out a little differently. 

The Fates Will Find Their Way is narrated by all of the boys at once, in the first-person plural, so the reader is never quite able to ascribe these feelings to any one in particular. Then again, there’s no need to. Because while their specific circumstances may vary, these kids never grow out of the fundamental group mentality that Nora’s disappearance creates; even well into adulthood (and marriage and fatherhood, for that matter) they still get together, late at night, and try in vain to turn their handful of battered jigsaw pieces into a complete puzzle.

Put another way, it’s a book about the particular eerie stillness of the suburbs—where you talk, and talk, and talk, just to fill the space.

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It’s, like, a “zinger,” the last line of the review… But wanting to kill oneself due to reading a 200-page book and not liking it because it is boring seems different than wanting to kill oneself due to not having any friends, being constantly interrogated by the person you’re closest to, constantly disappointing the person you’re closest to, becoming accustomed to binge-eating and then vomiting as a means to please oneself, not having a supportive mother, not having a father that is present, and being 16 and not free, to a large degree, to leave the situation.
In today’s Q&A with the National Post, Tao Lin nicely responds to the way Richard Yates was panned by Charles Bock in the New York Times. Who’s guilty of middle-class narcissism now?