Dilettante's Diary

Dec 30/07

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Favourite Works: 2004-2013
Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
Sabbath's Theater by PHILIP ROTH
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How Fiction Works
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The Jesus Sayings
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Head to Head
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Me In Manhattan
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About Me
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OTHER STUFF: Art Exhibitions, Concerts, etc.

The date above is the date on which the page was started. The most recent reviews appear towards the top of the page.

Reviewed here: Late Nights on Air (Novel); Eastern Promises, True Romance,  The Nanny Diaries, Rescue Dawn, Reign Over Me and Fracture (DVDs); Our Fathers (Novel)

Late Nights On Air (Novel) by Elizabeth Hay, 2007

A bunch of misfits have landed in Yellowknife in the mid 1970s. Given that several of them have found jobs at the local radio station, we learn plenty of radio lore and what it’s like to work for a far-flung CBC affiliate. The overall feeling is that people have to bond with each other to overcome the drawbacks of living in such an isolated place. By way of helping to establish the time and the place, we also get lots of the Berger Commission hearings on a proposed pipeline in Canada’s north. Further evocation of the northerly spirit is effected by frequent reference to a radio documentary about John Hornby, the British adventurer who, with two companions, starved to death at a remote cabin in the Barrens in 1927.

It's not hard to see why the abundant Canadian content might have persuaded the jurors to grant the prestigious Giller Prize to this book as the best fiction published in Canada this past year. Other explanations for the decision escape me. Perhaps it would be simplest – and safest – to say simply that the novel doesn’t work for me and to leave it at that. However, readers of Dilettante’s Diary have come to expect more. You want the how and the why. So here goes.

Since the cover blurb indicates that the author has worked for CBC radio in Yellowknife, it would surely not be too presumptuous to assume that Ms. Hay is drawing on her own memories. In fact, one of the main characters, a young woman who wanders into the radio station and talks herself into a job, would appear to represent the author. Apparently, Ms. Hay found it an amazing experience and she feels tremendous affection for those buddies, thinking back on them thirty years later. Unfortunately, she has failed to bring them out of her own mind and to give them independent life in a novel.

One of the problems, it seems to me, is point of view. The author has chosen the device of a third person omniscient narrator to tell the story. Fair enough. That works for many novels. The trouble here is that the omniscient narrator shifts so quickly from one person to another. Sometimes we move within one paragraph from one person’s thoughts to another person’s. The result is that you never get to feel that you know any of the characters very well. They fail to come off the page as individuals. Nor do they click as a group. So you don’t care very much about any of them.

That could also be because it’s hard to know what the characters themselves care about. In other words, there isn’t any coherent theme or plot. The book meanders in a desultory way. There’s no urgency to it. When a couple of characters start having sex, about mid-way into the book, you think: at last, some drama! A few pages later, though, one of those two switches to somebody else’s bed and it seems to matter about as much as a change of clothes.

The last third of the book describes a six-week canoe trip through the Barrens. Only four people – two men and two women – set out on the expedition; the other main characters fade into oblivion, at least for the time being. Without wanting to be too schoolmarm-ish about it, this gave me serious problems in terms of the unity of the novel. What was to be accomplished on this canoe trip and how did it relate thematically to what went before – assuming that some theme had been established previously? By the end of the trip, neither question was answered satisfactorily.

Even on its own terms, the trip is no roaring success as a piece of writing. One of the men on the trip was so poorly established in terms of character, that, while reading passages about him, I kept thinking I was reading about the other man and had to keep going back and checking the character’s name. At one point, the men have a minor argument over the ownership of a mug. What was the reporting of such a trivial bit of dialogue supposed to signify? At first it seemed that maybe this was the early warning of a storm brewing between the two men but no such thing evolved. Again, you get the feeling that the author is dishing up bits of flotsam and jetsam from memory that have no artistic purpose in the novel. One night in their tent, the two women fall into a discussion of the bible and religion. What did that have to do with anything? There had been no hint (at least not that I remembered) of any such issue in the rest of the novel.

Early on in the book, my first stirrings of uneasiness about the writing arose with the mention of a "stone cairn". Any conscientious writer (or editor) should have caught the redundancy. Later, the author describes two women comparing bruises and they are said to do so with "tender timing". What on earth could that mean? And when the author treats us to metaphor, the results can be rather disconcerting. She describes caribou antlers as looking like high heels. (Did she mean their hooves? No, I went back and checked. She means antlers.) A developing relationship is described as being "closer than friendship, just as the scratchy label of a sweater is closer than the sweater." A woman lying in her tent noted that the wind outside had died down "and a second wind was inside her." (Note to other characters: stand back!)

Even in terms of reporting, the author doesn’t satisfy. We get references to many northern plants and birds encountered on the canoe trip but they’re just lists that could have been culled from a textbook. From time to time it’s mentioned that the trippers bathed in the frigid waters but the author doesn’t even deign to tell me what I most want to know: did these men and women get naked in front of each other or what? In other words, are they just good friends or really good friends? There’s some hint that a couple of them may be making love occasionally but it’s hard to tell.

While reading this book, I kept thinking of the novel Yellowknife by Steve Zipp (see review, Dilettante’s Diary, Oct 4/07). While Mr. Zipp’s book doesn’t quite succeed as a whole, it explodes all over the place with energetic, creative and engaging writing. One could fault Ms. Hay's book by comparison, but perhaps that wouldn't be fair. After all, the two writers are striving for something very different. But I did feel that Mr. Zipp's book gave me a much stronger impression of life in the north and the colourful characters who are drawn to it.

Near the end of the Late Nights, however, something dramatic does happen and suddenly the writing becomes taut and gripping for a few pages. Although the author self-indulgently spins out interminable reminiscing and catching-up for another forty pages, that one striking passage made me wonder if I had been mis-reading everything that went before. Sometimes, with an author whose work you don’t know well, it can take a long time to catch the author’s voice and to appreciate what he or she is doing.

So I went back to the beginning of the book to take another look. I’m coming to the conclusion that this author may have some interesting things to say about the passage of time and the lingering effects of friendships but that she does not – at least as far as this book is concerned – manage to build them into a novel. She apparently has some gift for thoughtful, sensitive writing but not for story-telling.

This being the season for festivity and conviviality, your dedicated reviewer takes himself to a dark room where he sits alone, staring at a screen. Hence these reviews of DVDs.

Eastern Promises (DVD) written by Steven Knight; directed by David Cronenberg; starring Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts, Vincent Cassel, Armin Mueller-Stahl

As a maternity nurse, Naomi Watts assists at the birth of a baby whose mother, an unidentified fourteen-year old, dies in the delivery room. With only the deceased’s diary to guide her, Ms. Watts attempts to find out who the girl was and to connect with her family. This leads to some unsavoury encounters with London’s Russian mafia. Her main contact with them is Viggo Mortensen, their driver. Some of the issues that come up are the abuse of immigrant women and the influence of foreign mobsters in England. Which makes for fine melodrama if you’re not tired of movies about mobsters and their cant about family loyalty and their dialogue filled with portentous pronouncements like, "You play with the prince so that you can do business with the king." In a couple of special features on the DVD you see cast and crew on London streets kibitzing with each other and looking quite normal and you think: why couldn’t the movie have caught some of that feeling of ordinary life instead of the constant posing and pronouncing? But a nice plot twist very near the end of the movie goes a long way towards redeeming the whole thing.

Rating: C minus (Where C = "Certainly Worth Seeing")


True Romance (DVD) written by Quentin Tarantino; directed by Tony Scott; starring Christian Slater, Patricia Arquette; with Michael Rapaport, Val Kilmer, Samuel Jackson, Gary Oldman, Dennis Hopper, Christopher Walken, Brad Pitt, Saul Rubinek, James Gandolfini.

The main reason for seeing this oldie (1993) is that it launched Quentin Tarantino’s career: his proceeds from selling his script funded his first feature Reservoir Dogs. Coincidentally, though, True Romance makes an interesting comparison with the Coen Brothers’ recent No Country For Old Men. In both movies, we have a young guy, not especially smart but wily in his own way, who stumbles on some big drug money and thus finds himself at odds with some very bad people. But there the similarity ends. While the Coen brothers’ offering is saturated with their wry, droll wit, Quentin Tarantino’s script packs more of a comic book sensibility, if it can be called that. The dialogue, which brandishes his fascination with the oddities of language usage, makes these losers sound a lot more interesting than the pimps and pushers and assassins that you run into on a daily basis. And, in keeping with the comic book spirit, people constantly walk away from drubbings that no human being could survive. The slam-bang, in-your-face violence may have been hot stuff when the movie came out but now it has a sort of yesterday feel to it. But there’s lots of fun to be had watching the performances – some quite brief – by a roster of actors who have since become much bigger stars. I especially enjoyed a very young-looking Brad Pitt in a cameo as a stoner. It’s hard to say whether the pleasure comes from watching the celeb slumming it in his early days or whether it has to do with his innate comic abilities. Either way, it’s very amusing.

Rating: C (i.e. "Certainly worth watching")


The Nanny Diaries (DVD) written and directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini; based on the novel by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus; starring Scarlett Johansson, Laura Linney, Chris Evans, Paul Giamatti, Donna Murphy, Nicholas Art

As a result of a misunderstanding and a chance meeting, Scarlett Johansson, who’s hoping for a career as a Chief Financial Officer, finds herself working as a nanny for a rich bitch Manhattanite (Laura Linney). You have to wonder whether Laura Linney’s the right actor for such a wicked witch, given that her other roles have convinced you she’s actually quite nice. Towards the end of the movie, though, some cracks start to show in the botoxed facade and that’s when things  get interesting. So the movie does have some worthwhile things to say about the nanny’s interaction with her employers. Trouble is, getting to the good stuff requires you to suffer through a lot of contrived, corny set-ups. One of the phoniest of all is the device of telling the story from the nanny’s point of view as if she were an anthropologist researching the customs of Manhattanites. The most striking thing Miss Johansson’s performance is that, after coming across in several recent movies like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, she can actually be quite ordinary.

Rating: E (as in the Canadian "Eh?" i.e. iffy)


Rescue Dawn (DVD) written and directed by Werner Herzog; loosely based on the book "Escape from Laos" by Dieter Dengler; starring Christian Bale, Steve Zahn, Jeremy Davies

Based on real events, this one tracks the exploits of one Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale), a US pilot who was shot down over Laos in 1966 and taken prisoner. Apart from the controversial altering of several facts, the movie does an ok job of telling the story, step by step. But -- and this may come as a surprise to anybody impressed by the director's name --  it’s a pretty conventional saga about the hardships people can endure. Not one of the great dramas about people in captivity. The charismatic Steve Zahn is wasted in the role of a co-captive who hasn’t much of a character. Another prisoner (Jeremy Davies) seems more interesting, although you can never be sure whether he’s just plain crazy. In fact, the constant whispering of the prisoners (I guess there was always a chance that one of the guards would have an English slang dictionary up his sleeve) makes it difficult to tell what they’re saying much of the time. Great jungle scenery, though.

Rating: D (i.e. "Divided" = some good, some bad)


Reign Over Me (DVD) starring Don Cheadle and Adam Sandler; with Jada Pinkett Smith, Liv Tyler, Saffron Burrows, Donald Sutherland, Mike Binder

Don Cheadle, as a mega-rich Manhattan dentist, runs into an old college roommate (Adam Sandler) who is wandering the streets in a daze. Seems the Sandler character has suffered some extreme trauma that has devastated him. Cheadle keeps trying, one way and another, to throw a lifeline to his lost buddy. The interaction between the two men is brilliant and their characters are dead-on: Cheadle, by turns, affectionate, hopeful, frustrated and angry; Sandler kooky, irritating and spiteful, but showing just enough shrewdness and wit to make you glad that it’s Sandler playing the part. Liv Tyler makes a good impression as a psychiatrist who doesn’t let the fact that she’s too pretty and too young interfere with her professionalism. While I’m not sure that I completely buy the legal and psycho-therapeutical aspects of the ending, the movie earns a lot of points from me simply by the fact that it goes where typical movies don’t go these days. The only thing that bugged me was the fact that the problems in Cheadle’s personal and professional life – by way of counterpoint to the main story – seemed hokey.

Rating: B (i.e. "Better than most")


Fracture (DVD) starring Ryan Gosling, Anthony Hopkins; with Rosamund Pike, Billy Burke, David Strathairn.

Ryan Gosling, a young hot-shot on the Los Angeles District Attorney’s team, lands the job of prosecuting an apparent wife-killer. It looks like an open-and-shut case, but maybe not. Anthony Hopkins offers up an intriguing accused – gentlemanly, polite, charming, wily with just a touch of craziness; he’s so good that you wish there were more of him. Ryan Gosling provides a nice foil for Mr. Hopkins' gravitas. A lucrative offer to join a prestigious private firm temps the whiz kid away from his public duties. My only problem was a certain difficulty in believing that such a young-looking prosecutor could have wracked up the impressive record of victories that he’s credited with. The solution to the murder mystery struck me as ingenious but don’t take my word for that, as most mysteries are beyond my deductive powers. Filmed in an arty style with noir-ish touches.

Rating: B (i.e. "Better than most")


Our Fathers (Novel) by Andrew O’Hagan, 1999

This Scots writer came to my attention last fall in an interview with Eleanor Wachtel on CBC Radio’s "Writers and Company". The main thing that struck me in the conversation was that he said he took up ballet as a young man, mainly to irritate his father. That sounded like a writer worth paying attention to. Besides, he seemed to have a nuanced take on Scottish nationalism – something you don’t often get from those people.

However, Our Fathers, Mr. O’Hagan’s first novel, turns out to be a more difficult read than I was expecting. It takes a while to become accustomed to the writer’s voice in this story about a young man’s growing up in Scotland in the latter part of the twentieth century. Because the writing is terse and disjointed, packed with dense, poetic observations, the narrative trajectory can be elusive at times. On top of which, one of the major themes concerns activism among the protagonist’s ancestors for decent housing for Scotland’s working classes. When it comes to great themes for novels, housing, it must be admitted, is not up there with love and death.

But every now and then a scene grabs you by the throat and won’t let go. Characters suddenly leap off the page with astonishing vitality, spouting dialogue that smacks you in the face. The result is that, gradually, you begin to trust this author and you become more willing to work slowly through his dense prose. You start to see that the reason for the hard reading is that his thoughts about relationships between the generations are taking you to places that you’ve never been. You finish the book figuring you should go back to the beginning to see what you were missing in those impatient days of your early reading.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com