Tag Archives: community

The Illegal: Too Bad Lawrence Hill Likes His Protagonist Too Much

Marathon runners

*gentle spoilers* Lawrence Hill probably wants to write a novel with an unhappy ending. He takes his characters through all kinds of challenging and traumatic situations, he sets up plots that beg for dramatic and painful endings, he foreshadows the loss to come. And then… doesn’t deliver. Like The Book of Negroes, Hill’s new novel, The Illegal ends with the triumph of the virtuous over the corrupt, the community over the selfish individual and (you can probably hear it begin swelling around the same time as the last race sequence opens) swelling music as you know the hero is going to save and be saved. It’s a complaint I’d rather not make. I mean who wants to be the reader who asks for more pain for the well-crafted and sympathetic protagonist? It’s just that after experiencing a novel that sets itself up as realistic through the use of careful plot detail and complex character, it feels like an utter novelistic imposition to have such an – unbelievable – resolution. No character, no community – however deserving – achieves such universal satisfaction. [And I’m not a cynic! I’ve been accused of many things in my life, but pessimism isn’t one of them. On the contrary, my optimism is the source of much contention as it’s thought to be unrealistic – and to be fair D. Trump did just win a primary, so maybe it’s time for me to reconsider my position on the relentless upswing of the universe).]

That complaint soundly registered, I’d still recommend the book. With a well-paced and compelling plot, the novel follows runner Keita Ali as he struggles to run – and win – marathons while living as undocumented and ‘illegal’ in the eyes of the (fictional) Freedom State. His needs for winning are as high stakes as they are plentiful: he needs money to save his sister, to pay off his handler, to pay for surgery, to pay to make himself ‘legal’ in the eyes of the state. If these manifold reasons achieve anything (beyond instilling a sort of overwhelmed feeling that Keita will never survive – only to know in the back of your mind that of course he will because Hill can’t let him die [see complaint #1]), it’s the awareness that the insurmountable obstacles facing people in impossible situations are not obstacles of choice. What allows Keita to survive is, in the end, not his exceptional skill (though it helps), but rather the joint efforts of a community. This shift from individual responsibility for circumstance pushes readers to consider a similar shift in assignations of blame when considering those in similarly impossible situations (the timing of the book alongside the global interest in Syrian refugees certainly invites these kinds of parallel questions). Rather than expecting people to fix for themselves through hard work, grit (or incredible skill), we ought to recognize the ways we all need and benefit from shared effort and energy.

Plus the book has some incredible scenes of running that this [super slow] marathon runner enjoyed quite a bit.

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Filed under Bestseller, Canadian Literature, Fiction

Higher Ed: Bulimia isn’t the worst part

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Tessa McWatt beat me to the novel I haven’t written in Higher Ed. The novel takes up the current state of higher education in Britain (to be fair, I’d write the novel about Canadian higher ed, so perhaps there’s still a market – not). Through the interwoven narratives of five characters – the administrator, the film professor, the waiter, the law student and the civil servant – the novel explores the way we live in alienated, precarious and exhausted existences and how we might live otherwise.

Metaphors work to give contour to this exploration. Our administrator, Francine, works as a Quality Assurance officer at the University, helping programs through the absurd and demeaning process of justifying their existence by way of forms, counts, assessment checks and more forms. Francine, our character-stand-in for the university itself, has a distorted self image and bulimic practices. She wants to be ever trimmer, ever more efficient, to see herself, and more importantly to be seen by others, as successful. Yet, as any bulimic would know, in the attempt to purge, all she succeeds in doing is wasting energy on what isn’t important (and getting – ironically – bloated in the process). She sells out her ideals (and her body) to get ahead, only to discover that in the process of proving her worth to others she’s forgotten her own sense of self and priorities. Read the last paragraph again replacing “she” with “the university” and you see how the metaphor works in the novel.

Enter the civil servant who works disposing of the forgotten or “lonely dead,” those who have no one but the state on which to rely when they die. The civil servant, Ed, works with his once estranged daughter, the law student, Olivia, to bring some kind of meaning to these sanitized and bureaucratic deaths complete with mass graves and – again – forms. Their attempts at meaning take the shape we all recognize as meaning-makers: song, storytelling and poetry. As the two characters make this lone and ultimately futile (like life, the novel poses) effort, they deepen their relationship and come to trust and rely on one another. Pitted against the horror of the forgotten, lonely, death this quickening of a relationship is meant – I suspect – to offer us some hope and solace.

And there’s the crux. The novel suggests we live and function among cold and uncaring bureaucracies that are driven by profit and absent either individual or community. Yet, against these efficiency efforts the novel offers budding relationships and clumsy romance. As if to say we may have forgotten how to reach out to one another, how to use poetry to understanding our humanity and how to speak to one another in words not in text(s), but we are not so far gone that we can’t try to, maybe, hazard the attempt at, remembering and connecting.

In other words it’s not an overly optimistic or heartwarming story. Instead, as a sort-of administrator in higher ed myself, I find the call for connection, for real conversation, for extended empathy as at one and the same time entirely appealing and utterly insufficient. We live in the tragic gap, says Parker Palmer, between the reality we recognize and the reality we imagine as possible. In this novel we sit precisely in that space between what the university (what our society) is– profit driven – and what it could be – people driven. And from this gap we’re meant to both witness and imagine. If only we had a way to do that. Oh wait, we do: we can read.

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Filed under Book Club, British literature, Canadian Literature, Fiction

A Man Called Ove: How to tell if the book you’re reading is sentimental crap. Or if you are cruel and unfeeling.

old man

I’m a graduate of a PhD program in English and Cultural Studies. My training was all about – well, most of the time – explaining why something was bad. Oversimplified! (see? I’m good at explaining why I’m bad, too). What it was about was cultivating my critical faculties. My ability to take something apart and show all the ways it was ‘problematic’. There’s a whole set of verbs you can use: problematize, trouble, unpack… all in an effort to have us reconsider the taken-for-granted and the assumed. Sometimes I worried – like L. – that I was being trapped in a culture of criticism that not only meant I had a harder time building or believing in something (that is, being earnest or sincere), but that I was only ever to think about the books I was reading in terms of ‘good’ books (those that were self-aware enough to know they were problematic) and those ‘bad’ books.

So I’m tempted to say that Fredrick Backman’s A Man Called Ove is problematic, but I’m not going to (even though I just did, see?). Instead I’ll say that it’s at once wonderfully enjoyable and a lesson in the conventions of best-selling novels: a story of a man who tries to kill himself because he’s grieving the death of his wife, but can’t kill himself because he finds purpose in building community (how’s that for the elevator pitch?).

The chapters read as headlines (“A Man Called Ove Finds a Screwdriver” “A Man Called Ove Buys Bread”) (which I recently learned is a pretty common strategy in writing a novel, to sketch out your chapters as newspaper headlines) and the narrative – in translation, no less – is funny, warm, cozy and safe. You’re meant to see Ove as his neighbours do, a crotchety old man who is actually the funny, warm, cozy and safe man that parallels his narrative.

It’s a book I’d suggest if you were worried that living in your townhouse in the suburbs was making you less community-focused. Or if you thought that maybe you couldn’t have intergenerational friendships. Or if you were concerned that you were xenophobic or homophobic (or that maybe your granddad was). It’s a book that takes any worry you might have about your existence – or modern life – and banishes it away with the calmest, safest, warmest, funniest, hug-of-sentimentality.

It’s a book you’ll read and you’ll cry in your oatmeal. You’ll be glad you read it for the warmth it gave you all day. You’ll read it knowing there are problems with the narrative construction, with the character, with the politics of the text, but you won’t mind because it makes you feel so good. And whether that makes the book itself good or bad, I’m not one to say. I think there are some occasions (certainly not all, let’s not get carried away), when it’s okay to enjoy a book because it’s enjoyable. And this one really is.

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Filed under Book Club, Fiction, Funny