Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Canadian Bookshelf

Balmy, blue skies outside my window, and I'm still in my bathrobe at 1:30 in the afternoon.  I'm currently taking time off from my day job in order to hibernate and finish writing my historical novel ...  So I shan't get distracted from the task at hand by launching into a blog post.  But if you feel like reading something I've written recently on my escape from academia and the process of writing my memoir, here is a short piece that was published in Canadian Bookshelf's blog

Friday, March 16, 2012

Book #63: Novel or Short Story?

“It had a beautiful screwdriver in it, the orange translucent handle gleaming like a lollipop in its worn leather loop, the silvery shaft sculpted, sparkling.  Sasha felt herself contract around the object in a single yawn of appetite; she needed to hold the screwdriver, just for a minute.”

                                                                                                       -Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad

A few days ago, I wandered to my neighbourhood bookstore.  I’d spent the morning writing, but that slightly disoriented feeling of coming out of somewhere and blinking in the sun, not knowing which way to turn, had hit me, a sign that my writing might be on the verge of taking a wayward turn …  So I decided to put it aside and stroll to the bookstore.  I was searching for that one perfect novel that would inspire me.  I was craving a novel as tried and true as Edith Wharton’s TheHouse of Mirtha longtime favourite on my bookshelf – and yet I wanted it to be set in the contemporary moment (not that I don’t love Wharton’s fin-de-siecle New York, of course). 

I flipped through Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the GoonSquad  somewhat randomly.  I had a vague memory of reading a review of the novel when it came out a couple years ago and picked up the Pulitzer Prize.  My eyes skimmed over the epigraph by Proust and launched into chapter one.  And speaking of Wharton’s Old New York …  Here it was, transported to the present.  What luck.  Our heroine, Sasha, a beautiful kleptomaniac, who snatches a wallet from the washroom of a hotel bar near the former World Trade Centre in the opening scene, has distinct hints of Wharton’s Lily Bart, a woman no less fragile and neurotic and unsure of what she really wants.  Not five pages in, I found myself engrossed in Sasha’s world, a place where the possessions of strangers suddenly beckon, throbbing with seemingly animate properties: the coveted wallet is described as “tender and overripe as a peach.”  The scene expertly cuts back and forth between Sasha’s recollection of stealing the wallet and her therapy session, where she lounges on the couch of her therapist, Coz, as they try to make sense of her peculiar predilection for thievery.  Not for money, not because she wants any of the random objects she steals for money.  Something more primal drives her desire to snatch these things – a treasured pen, a screwdriver, a lost mitten – which she displays in a shrine-like way on a table in her flat.  Her psychology struck me as reminiscent of Walter Benjamin’s theory about the Collector, a figure who tries to “rescue” objects from the world of commerce to imbue them with a more unique, sentimental value. 

I wanted to know where the novel would go.  I wanted to know where life and love would take this deeply troubled, isolated young woman.  But although the book was nicely packaged to look like a novel – with a blurb on the back that makes it appear that the story is about Sasha – I should have detected that our author is subtly poking fun at the predictable conventions of the novel genre, with all its focus on forward-moving momentum and predetermined endings: “She and Coz were collaborators writing a story whose end had already been determined: she would get well.  She would stop stealing from people and start caring again about the things that had once guided her: music; the network of friends she’d made when she first came to New York; a set of goals she’d scrawled on a big sheet of newsprint and taped to the walls of her early apartments:
Find a band to manage
Understand the news
Study Japanese
Practice the harp”

It turns out that this very sense of “writing a story whose end had already been determined” is what Egan is subverting by telling a story – or series of stories – that do anything but that.  After standing in the bookstore and reading the first story, which reads so beautifully like chapter one of a long, lush novel, I bought the book and reclined on my sofa, only to realize that it isn’t a novel at all.  The stories fan out following the random, fortuitous connections of modern life, with a minor character in the first story (Sasha’s music producer boss, who’s known for sprinkling gold flakes in his coffee, an unusual drug of choice) turning into the main character of the next story, and so on.  Much as I enjoyed the sheer diversity of voices and experimental form that some of the stories take, there was a part of me, I have to admit, that still craved to know more about Sasha’s journey and fate.  My mind kept wandering back to her …  I wanted the novel.  My desire was not entirely thwarted, as a few of the later stories loop back to Sasha, illuminating a past or future moment in her life, now told from other characters’ perspectives.  It was just enough for my imagination to provide a shadow sketch of how own heroine’s life would have unfolded, were we reading a novel.    

Photo from: here

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Book #62: Intimacy & Locality

"After one girl has fallen, the rest are explicable; they have a template, a precedent.  But before that, it is hard to understand.  At the beginning of this problem, then, is a single girl, the first to fall."                                                                          -Maggie Helwig, Girls Fall Down

Over the weekend, I read Maggie Helwig's Girls Fall Down, which was recently named the Toronto Public Library's One Book, a city-wide initiative to encourage Torontonians to read the same book in April.  Although I don't particularly like the idea of going with the herd in terms of my reading, I heard Helwig being interviewed on CBC and was so intrigued that I couldn't resist picking up her novel.

It's set in Toronto, shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  One of its central themes is clearly the culture of fear that 9/11 initiated, yet I found Helwig's narrative technique of conveying this sense of mass hysteria to be unusual, delicate.  Although the novel is largely told from the perspective of her main character, Alex - a medical photographer who takes pictures of open heart surgery by day, while taking pictures of the grittier side of life at night - many of the chapters begin and end in an omniscient voice that pans over the city and goes into momentary close-ups on the lives of random inhabitants.  "Across the river, among the towers of St. Jamestown, a Somali girl tightened her head scarf, zipped up her red jacket and set out on her hike to deliver newspapers, and on the street an Iranian man who had once been a doctor cleaned vomit from the backseat of his taxi.  A woman put a pan of milk on the burner of her stove, and stared at the creamy ripples on the surface."  It's as though the city itself is a main character, replete with emotions and misery.

This misery takes many forms.  In the opening scene, we see a pretty, glossy haired girl at the centre of a clique of high school girls suddenly fall down on the subway, her skin erupting in a strange, vicious rash, while smelling something like roses.  The incident precipitates a mass panic that sweeps through Toronto, as other girls mysteriously collapse in the days that follow, while the same paranoia plays out in the mind of our protagonist, Alex, who suffers from diabetes and becomes convinced he's on the verge of going blind.  But it soon becomes clear that Alex's physical state is inextricably tied to a deeper turbulence.  An old flame (or fling, to be precise) named Suzanne has wandered back into his life, a girl he used to be secretly in love with, back during his misspent youth in the louche establishments of 1980s Kensington Market.  He's all too familiar with the feeling of having watched Suzanne for years - Susie-Paul, as she was known back then - flirting, seducing and discarding men at whim, when they used to work together at a small newspaper, and all the while he tried to convince himself that "there was something different between them, sharper and more actual.  But he was probably wrong."

The novel beautifully illustrates the past and all his unresolved feelings refracted through the present story, as she seeks Alex's help in finding her schizophrenic twin brother, who has gone missing in the ravines of the city.  For the first time, Alex comes to understand why she was so messed up all those years ago and he is brought face to face with all her fears, secrets and vulnerabilities that persist even now, well into her thirties.  In this sense, I found the novel deliciously revealing and close to the bone, and I found that the characters drew me into their peculiar circle of intimacy so well, perhaps partly because many of the scenes are set in my own neighbourhood (Little Italy) and other adjacent neighbourhoods, like Kensington, where I've also lived and idled away much time during my wayward youth ...  The perfect stimulant to my own writing and emotions, as I embark on writing the final section of my own novel, part of which is also set in Toronto.

And speaking of Toronto writing, the cultural organization Diaspora Dialogues recently interviewed me about the role of Toronto in my own fiction ...  If you wish, you can listen to the podcast here.

Photo from: here


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About Me

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Toronto, ON, Canada
Leslie Shimotakahara is a writer and recovering academic, who wanted to be simply a writer from before the time she could read. Hard-pressed to answer her parents’ question of how she would support herself as a writer, Leslie got drawn into the labyrinthine study of literature, completing her B.A. in Honours English from McGill in 2000, and her M.A. and Ph.D. in Modern American Literature from Brown in 2006. After graduation, she taught English at St. Francis Xavier University for two years. Leslie woke up one morning and realized that she’d had enough of the Ivory Tower. The fact that she wasn’t doing what she wanted to do with her life loomed over her, and the realization was startling. It was time to stop studying and passively observing life and do something real instead. She needed to discover herself and tell her own story. This blog and the book she has written under the same title (Variety Crossing Press, spring 2012) are her foray. Leslie's writing has been published in WRITE, TOK: Writing the New Toronto, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, and GENRE.