Dilettante's Diary

March 11, 2022

Who Do I Think I Am?
Index: Movies
Index: Writing
Index: Theatre
Index: Music
Index: Exhibitions
Artists' Blogs
Index: TV, Radio and Misc
MAY 27, 2024
Nov 3, 2023
Aug 2, 2023
July 4, 2023
Apr 21, 2023
Feb 10, 2023
Jan 24, 2023
Jan 11, 2023
Dec 2, 2022
July 26, 2022
July 4, 2022
June 2, 2022
March 25, 2022
March 11, 2022
Feb 14, 2022
Nov 19, 2021
Oct 2021
Sept 16, 2021
July 21, 2021
July 15, 2021
June 11, 2021
Apr 23, 2021
March 12, 2021
Feb 13, 2021
Jan 5, 2021
December 2020
Autumn Mysteries 2020
Aug 12/20
May 25/20
Apr 30/20
March 12/20
Dec 6/19
Jan 29/20
Nov 10/19
Oct 24/19
Sept 30/19
Aug 2/19
June 22/19
May 26/19
Apr 22/19
Feb 23/19
Jan 15/19
Dec 20/18
Dec 3/18
Oct 3/18
Sept 9/18
Aug 9/18
July 19/18
June 2/18
May 14/18
Apr 23/18
Feb 22/18
Dec 13/17
Nov 22/17
Nov 3/17
Oct 5/17
Sept 21/17
Aug 3/17
June 16/17
Mar 21/17
Feb 26/17
Feb 9/17
Jan 30/17
Dec 19/16
Dec 11/16
Nov 20/16
Sept 17/2016
Aug 21/16
July 17/16
June 29/16
June 2/16
Apr 23/16
Feb 28/16
Feb 1/16
Jan 27/16
Winter Reading 2016
Dec 15/15
Nov 19/15
Fall Reading 2015
Oct 29/15
Sept 16/15
Sept 4/15
July 29, 2015
July 1, 2015
June 7/15
Summer Reading 2015
May 19/15
Apr 30/15
Apr 19/15
Spring Reading 2015
March 23/15
March 11/15
Winter Reading 2015
Feb 20/15
Feb 8/15
Jan 29/15
Jan 20/15
Highs 'N Lows of 2014
Dec 19/14
Dec 2/14
Nov 10/14
Oct 29/14
Fall Reading 2014
Sept 17/14
Summer Reading 2014
Aug 22/14
Aug 8/14
July 11/14
June 16/14
May 28/14
Apr 30/14
Apr 16/14
Apr 2/14
March 21, 2014
March 13/14
Feb 11/14
Sept 23/13
Favourite Works: 2004-2013
Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
Sabbath's Theater by PHILIP ROTH
July 18/13
Summer Reading 2013
June 19/13
May 30/13
Spring Reading 2013
May 10/13
Apr 18/13
Mar 29/13
March 14, 2013
The Artist Project 2013
Feb 25/13
Winter Reading 2013
Feb 7/13
Jan 22/13
Jan 12/13
A Toast to 2012
Dec 19/12
Dec 16/12
Dec 4/12
Fall Reading 2012
Nov 17/12
Nov 6/12
Art Toronto 2012
Oct 23/12
Oct 4/12
Sept 28/12
Summer Reading 2012
Aug 26/12
Aug 8/12
Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 2012
July 14/12
June 28/12
May 27/12
May 20/12
May 4/12
La Traviata: Met's Live HD Version
Apr 21/12
Apr 6/12
Mar 22/12
Mar 9/12
The Artist Project 2012
Academy Awards Show 2012
Feb 26/12
Feb 11/12
Jan 23/12
Jan 15/12
Jan 7/12
Dec 20/11
Dec 12/11
Nov 27/11
Nov 18/11
Nov 7/11
Art Toronto 2011
Oct 22/11
Oct 17/11
Sept 30, 2011
Summer Reading 2011
Aug 11/11
July 28, 2011
July 19/11
TOAE 2011
June 25/11
June 20/11
June 2/11
May 14/11
Apr 29/11
Toronto Art Expo 2011
Apr 11/11
March 24/11
The Artist Project 2011
March 11/11
Feb 23/11
Feb 7/11
Jan 21/11
Jan 17/11
Dec 21/10
Dec 6/10
Nov 11/10
Fall Reading 2010
Oct 22/10
Summer Reading 2010
Aug 9/10
Aug 2/10
TOAE 2010
July 16/10
The Shack
June 27/10
June 3/10
May 5/10
April 17/10
Mar 28/10
Mar 17/10
The Artist Project 2010
Toronto Art Expo 2010
Feb 22/10
Feb 3/10
Notables of '09
Jan 11/10
Dec 31/09
Dec 17/09
How Fiction Works
Nov 24/09
Sex for Saints
Nov 11/09
Oct 22/09
Oct 6/09
Sept 18/09
Aug 23/09
July 31/09
July 17/09
Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 2009
Toronto Fringe 2009
Zen Wrapped In Karma Dipped In Chocolate
June 28/09
June 6/09
Myriad Mysteries 2009
May 10/09
CBC Radio -- "The New Two"
April 14/09
March 24/09
Toronto Art Expo '09
March 1/09
The Jesus Sayings
Feb 8/09
Jan 26/09
Jan 10/09
Stand-outs of 2008
Dec 24/08
Dec 4/08
Nov 16/08
Oct 27/08
Oct 16/08
Sept 26/08
Sept 5/08
July 21/08
Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 08
July 5/08
June 23/08
June 4/08
May 18/08
May 4/08
April 16/08
March 26/08
Head to Head
Feb 26/08
Feb 13/08
Jan 30/08
Jan 17/08
Notables of 2007
Dec 30/07
Dec 8/07
Nov 22/07
Oct 25/07
Oct 4/07
Sept 18/07
Aug 29/07
Aug 8/07
Summer Mysteries '07
July 20/07
June 28/07
June 8/07
May 21/07
May 2/07
April 14/07
March 23/07
Toronto Art Expo 2007
March 8/07
Feb 16/07
Feb 2/07
Jan 24/07
Notables of 2006
Dec 27/06
December 11/06
November 28/06
Nov 8/06
October 14/06
Sept 22/06
Ring Psycho (Wagner on CBC Radio)
Sept 6/06
August 12/06
July 18/06
June 27/06
June 9/06
May 23/06
Me In Manhattan
May 2/06
April 12/06
March 17/06
March 9/06
Feb 16/06
Feb 1/06
Jan 11/06
Dec 31/05
Dec 12/05
Nov 25/05
Nov 4/05
Oct 24/05
Sept 7/05
Sept 16/05
Sept 1/05
Aug 10/05
July 21/05
Me and the Jays
July 10/05
June 15/05
May 18/05
April 27/05
April 18/05
April 8/05
March 21/05
Feb 28/05
Feb 21/05
Feb 4/05
Jan 28/05
Jan 19/05
Jan 5/05
About Me
Dec 20/04
Dec 5/04
OTHER STUFF: Art Exhibitions, Concerts, etc.

Reviewed here: MAYFLIES (Novel); JACK (Novel)

Mayflies (Novel) by Andew O'Hagan, 2021

Andrew O'Hagan's Be Near Me was so good that you'd have to pluck out my eyes if you wanted to keep me from reading anything else that he wrote. That novel struck me as being just about perfect.

Alas, you can't expect an author to pull off the same magic every time, no matter how good a writer he or she is. Sometimes there's something so beautiful about an idea for a book idea, something so captivating and entrancing, that it virtually writes itself. No writer can hit on something like that every time. Acceptable books, good ones, even remarkable ones, may follow but not always with the same feel of masterpiece about them.

Which brings us to Mayflies.

The opening of the book introduces us to Jimmy Collins, a boy in his late teens, living in Glasgow in the summer of 1986. His parents -- neither of whom ever had much of an interest in parenting -- have fled, each in a different direction, leaving Jimmy to fend more or less for himself in council housing. He finds something of the family feeling that he's lacking in the home of a buddy, Tully Dawson, who is a couple of years old than he. A particularly affectionate relationship develops between Jimmy and Tully's mother. And a sympathetic English teacher who admires and encourages Jimmy gives us hope that something will work out well for Jimmy.

So far so good. It looks like Mr. O'Hagan is creating the kind of sensitive, interpersonal, quiet study of character that distinguishes his other writings.

But the first half of the book gradually becomes a celebration of the friendships that Jimmy and Tully have with pals of similar social standing. There's constant ribbing and razzing among them, dare-devil pranks, high spirits, hilarity and so on. The narrative thrust leads towards a rock concert that they're going to attend in Manchester. Once they get there, we're treated to a few days that pass in a blur of drink, drugs, and attempts to get laid.

Early on, this rollicking tale of youthful shenanigans reminded me that when a writer seems to want to recreate the joys of his youth, the attempt doesn't often come off well from the reader's point of view. Too often the account of the hijinks leaves the reader with one of those I-guess-you-had-to-be-there feelings. In this case, it's particularly difficult to identify with these guys because, apart from Jimmy and Tully, they're not very distinct as characters. And almost all of their banter is about movies and rock music and sports team that are completely unknown to many readers -- this one at least. Not to mention the Glasgow slang that's impenetrable to some of us.

Occasionally in this melee, there's a hint of something deeper, something more resonant in the exchanges between Jimmy and Tully -- as if you were standing on a frozen pond getting glimpses of the life under the water. There's tremendous charisma and vitality about Tully that suggest something special about him. At times, I could almost feel echoes of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby with its poetic allusions to elusive meanings and, indeed, one of the characters in Mayflies does eventually refer to that book.

And that premonition of deeper meanings does pay off in the second half of the book when things become much more serious. It's set in 2017 and Tully phones Jimmy with news that shakes up both their lives. Other reviewers might tell you what's at stake but the books' jacket copy respects the author's narrative intentions, so I will too. Let's just say that what we're faced with a situation that brings up questions about friendship and loyalty, about responsibilities to friends and family, about ethics, morality and mortality.

This is much more the kind of book we expect from Andrew O'Hagan. In just one respect, though, it may have a little less resonance than the author hoped for. When the other friends from the first half of the book reappear briefly, the fact that they didn't stand out very clearly as distinct personalities in the earlier part of the book means that their presence now doesn't have quite the effect that it was probably meant to have.

Which doesn't mean that a reader isn't totally enmeshed in the problem facing Jimmy and Tully. When Jimmy tells a friend that it's hard to think about what's happening, his friend says: "All the important things are hard to think about."

Jack (Novel) by Marilynne Robinson, 2020

When you see a new novel by Marilynne Robinson on the library's "Recommended" shelf, you don't pass it up if you've read any of her other books. For me, her Housekeeping is one of the great novels of all time. And, if there was any further incentive required to pick up this one, the title hinted that it was probably the source of some excellent short fiction that had appeared in The New Yorker.

As in the New Yorker's short excerpt, this is the story of a white man of dubious social standing who strikes up a relationship with a proper Black woman who is a school teacher. I'd found the New Yorker piece intriguing, full of the unusual insight and exceptional wisdom that you're accustomed to finding in Marilynne Robinson's work.

However, the novel did present some challenges. Nearly the first quarter of the book consists of a long night that Jack and Della spend in a cemetery where they happen to find themselves after the gates have been closed and locked. (If you want to know precisely where and when this is taking place, I assume you need to have read the previous three novels in Ms. Robinson's Gilead series, Jack being the fourth. My impression is that this is middle America in mid-20th century.) Given that the chronology of the narrative is not straight forward, it's difficult to tell when this cemetery meeting fits into Jack and Della's story. Did the restaurant date, as depicted in the New Yorker excerpt, take place before or after this night in the cemetery? Never mind, the point of the long night is that it explores feelings and ideas, shared interests, different attitudes, that don't depend much on chronology.

At times, though, I was wondering whether I was reading a story with some narrative purpose or whether I was reading a distinguished writer's demonstration of how cleverly she could spin out such a long, static situation where the little that happens doesn't amount to much. (The lack of chapter divisions exacerbates the feeling that you're getting nowhere fast.) Jack and Della move back and forth, taking shelter here and there throughout the cemetery, depending on the vagaries of the weather and the temperature. He's always insisting on being gallant, even courtly, you might to say, while reassuring her of his honourable intentions. She's polite, cordial, gradually becoming a little more trusting and friendly. But, oh dear, will this night never end? And how come neither of them ever has to go the bathroom?

Now and then, however, Ms. Robinson adds some thought-provoking content that's just enough to keep me reading. For example, Della offers this on religion: "I just think there has to be a Jesus, to say 'beautiful' about things no one else would ever see. The precious things should be looked to, whatever becomes of the rest of it." And you can't dismiss a guy like Jack, who, no matter how bleak his circumstanes, can say: "You know, I actually sort of enjoy my life. I know I shouldn't. It could stand a lot of improvement. But maybe it's the feeling you have that makes a life bad."

When they're liberated from the cemetery, come morning, the novel starts to move forward in ways that are entirely gripping. All the grit and grist of real life are here: the clothing, the food, the furniture. As Jack and Della move through their days and try to come to grips with happenings, nuggets of Ms. Robinson's trademark insight turn up on every page. Characters are constantly saying and thinking things that you've never heard before but that strike you with gut-piercing truth. Some of the most fascinating passages replay discussions between Jack and a church minister whom he's started consulting about his situation.

Mind you, Jack, although endlessly intriguing, isn't easy to pin down. There's definitely a disreputable air about him. (He's recently spent some time in prison.) Living in a miserable rooming house, he seems to be coping barely better than a street person. No secret about his being too fond of booze. One of the oddest things about him -- and something that's endearing in a strange way -- is that he simply wants to avoid causing harm to people and yet he feels he's fated to fail in that respect.

Unlikely as it may seem, he manages to get a job as a salesman in a failing shoe store. When that job expires, he's able to spiff himself up enough to be hired as a partner for women students at a dance studio. Turns out he's even fairly adept at a piano keyboard. Even though he has a surprising appreciation of poetry and Shakespeare, what Della sees in Jack can be a mystery to a reader. Maybe it's just his persistence, his dogged attention to her -- in spite of all the hindrances -- that earns her approval.

And those hindrances loom large. It's easy for a reader today to forget how fraught an inter-racial relationship could be back in mid-20th century America. Both Jack and Della know that, if their connection becomes public, it could ruin her career as a teacher. Even her family members see nothing but disaster in a future for Della with Jack. And yet, those family members are not presented as ogres or villains. They're created with the complexity and nuance that distinguish Ms. Robison's observations about all of humanity.

Perhaps the greatest tribute to her achievement in this novel is to say that it ends on a hopeful note that, given all the trouble, is muted, realistic and reasonable.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com