Bear by Marian Engel

bearWhen you read the back of a book and it outlines some charming tale about a librarian who spends a summer on a northern Canadian island, digging through old books and cataloging them. When you note this blurb describes her as ‘mousy’. Yes, when you take these things and you read the sentence they sneak in at the end about this being one of Canada’s most controversial novels, I believe that like me, you can only come to one conclusion about what this mousy librarian does with that bear.

What is with Canadian women going wild on remote northern islands? This happened in Surfacing by Margaret Atwood too. Sans the beastiality, but with plenty of dirt and madness. But who am I to complain? I liked both these novels a good deal.

Engel has a pleasant, readable style. The pathos of the protagonist is real. It’s easy to get into her head even as she constantly reveals deeper layers that unveil a very different character by the end of the book. The descriptions of the wilderness — from the very specific feel of the cold morning air to the shape of the mushrooms — is immersive and well done.

So I guess we should spend some time doing some analysis on bearsex. What our librarian (who is not actually a librarian, she’s an archivist), Lou, comes to find out in the wilderness is not any particular useful bit of sexual or personal discovery. I read reviews or descriptions that attest to that and I’m confused. It’s more like she affirms what she already knew: that being an intelligent woman in the so-called liberating 70s was still to face stifling, society-wide misogyny on a daily basis. Lou can’t find love but she desperately wants a man: emotionally and sexually. It’s this sort of yearning I can match to 60’s/70s lit (The Golden Notebook for sure), but I see it much less in contemporary texts. Perhaps times have changed or perhaps it’s just disempowering to say that out loud.

Here’s where the bear comes in: with his musk and his enormous masculine presence and his phallus-like tongue, he’s the physical embodiment of strength/protection/power/etc that men are supposed to be. But he’s also impotent and can’t reciprocate Lou’s love. Bear is like the polar (ha!) opposite of the over-intellectualized but useless human men she encounters. Lou imprints a personality on the bear only to find it empty and wrong. It’s just a bear. Wilderness retreats, regardless of what taboos they break, can’t fix society or human relationships.

There’s my take on a woman-bear love.

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The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

heartgoeslastThere’s an uber-recession in the near future that devastates the US, especially the northeast. Everyone loses their jobs, their houses. Crime abounds. Night-time comes to resemble something between A Clockwork Orange and The Walking Dead. Only the very rich manage to flourish, more or less buying everyone else. But there’s a light amidst the darkness. Some well-funded entrepreneur has created Consilience. A dual-role town where residents spend half their time in vanilla, safe, picketed 1950s houses and then every month swap to becoming inmates in Positron Prison. The reason this is a stunning economic boon and the cure to all ills is murky and the narrative never gives a sufficient surface explanation and instantly we know there is something sinister behind the scenes.

But naturally, early 30s married couple Charmaine and Stan, living in their car, barely keeping ahead of the mob, and in desperate need of regular showers sign right up to become residents/inmates, because anything beats transience and fear.

The first half of this book is a bland and unconvincing relationship drama with dull, pitiful characters. The second half is a sci fi caper replete with a squad of gay Elvises and real-life sexbots. The whole thing is kind of weird and I’m not sure I’d recommend it.

The thing you gotta know about The Heart Goes Last is that it is about sex. But, at least in my opinion, it’s not really the sex and lust and whatnot people experience in the real world but more like some tempestuous primordial force that sweeps inside like a malevolent shade and jerks you about, the puppet to its master.

Early in the novel, Stan finds a letter under his fridge. You see, the conceit of Consilience is that when one couple is spending time in the prison, their house isn’t empty — it’s occupied by the couple that is in prison when the first group is in the house. So anyway, Stan finds a lustful note from the Alternate woman to the Alternate man. ‘I starve for you.’ Punctuated by the imprint of a purple lipstick kiss.

This is all it takes for Stan. Soon he’s concocting elaborate fantasies about this woman, Jasmine. He creates a whole backstory for her and her love life with her husband, Max. It consumes him completely and he begins ignoring Charmaine. He plans on hiding in the house when it’s his turn to go to the prison and basically leaping out and forcing himself on a surely willing Jasmine.The obsession takes a leap to the nonsensical when he finds release at his prison job. What’s he do? Tend the chickens. Yeah. Stan violates chickens to sate his overwhelming, all consuming sexual madness. Triggered by a single note.

But, wait, hold a second. Turns out, Charmaine has been engaging in an affair with Max, the Alternate man. She wrote the note with the purple lipstick. There’s a flashback to how this affair began. She was about to leave her house for Positron Prison when Max saunters in. He says about 3 words and then he’s kissing her. 3 seconds later and her skirts being pushed up. And she loves it. She instantly checks out on Stan and is stealing time with Max (this guy she slept with after knowing for all of 30 seconds) any second she can get, regardless of any danger this poses.

It’s baffling. The characters of this novel are knowing slaves to their super powered hormones and have no expectation of maintaining control. They’re also just petty, unlikeable people. You can’t get behind them even when they’re put up against even scummier people and they’re not quite bad enough to be trainwreck interesting. Atwood is a great writer so I wasn’t exactly bored, but I was close.

That ‘close’ nearly morphed into ‘certain bordeom’ when stuff happened that had me almost ready to put down the book — and this review will get a little spoilery here because I’m going to discuss events in the middle. It’s revealed Charmaine has been acting as an executioner of Positron malcontents who couldn’t fit in the system and thus must be removed. She’s been doing this from day one. A series of events occurs where it turns out Stan is the one on the table ready for her needle. And I’m thinking Wow, if Charmaine knowingly murders her husband, then Atwood has lost me… how could I even read about this character I didn’t like in the first place? And then of course, Charmaine does it. Kills her husband. Or thinks she does. Instead of losing me, it actually proves my previous paragraph true. The characters suddenly do become trainwreck interesting.

It also helps that the plot kicks into overdrive and rockets ahead, a true antagonist is revealed, the sci-fi becomes relevant instead of window dressing and we spend less time pondering the characters’ mystifying love life. It belatedly attains page-turner status.

The sex never quites meshes though. By the end, the message seems to be that the ideal sexual partner for a straight man (Stan) is a woman fully under his control who has sex whenever he wants and the ideal sexual partner for a straight woman (Charmaine) is someone who removes all difficult choice from her life and tells her what to do so she never has to take initiative or responsibility beyond what bed sheets to buy. It’s perplexing.

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

life of piI began this book in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and finished it on the 38L bus in San Francisco. Kind of like Pi’s journey, sans malnutrition and 450 lb. Bengal tiger.

This book, while entertaining, suffers from a not uncommon phenomenon. It’s been out for 13 years, just had a major movie release, and is part of our societal consciousness. As a result, I knew it was about boy in a boat with a tiger. So when the novel itself spends the first hundred pages in southern India, detailing Pi Patel’s life and entering into both a theological treatise on the multivalence of religion as well as a stalwart defense of zoo ethics, and it’s even further, a full 150 pages (about halfway) before the premise — boy + boat + tiger — is realized, I could not help but be figuratively tapping my foot in impatience.

The religion bits made me want to debate the authorial voice purporting them. Conflating atheism with faith drives me up a wall and the novel paints atheists and theists as similar belief-based stances. It also has a hilarious and unnecessarily antagonistic take on agnosticism, condemning doubt as wishy-washy and cowardly; this, instead of the essential element of theology and science alike that doubt actually is. The zoo defense squad sections follow along similar lines. Martel omits crucial elements of anti-zoo activist’s arguments. His exhortation that the difference between wild habitat and zoo enclosure is arbitrary, and that the animals appreciate the safety and reliability of food does not reconcile with my own childhood memories of Major the polar bear ceaselessly pacing back and forth in his room temperature pen in the Stone Zoo.

I was also under the impression that this was going to be a fantastical story. Maybe it was the tiger. In actually, the tale is played almost* entirely straight. While a Bengal tiger on a lifeboat is extraordinary, the story is otherwise how a person stuck on a boat in the middle of the ocean might try and survive. There’s interminable descriptions of knot tying, the structure of the boat, the current status of the tiger, the position of the tarpaulin, the direction of the winds, the ferocity or calmness of the waves. All the sort of repetitive practical details that make castaway stories a bit of a bore and all of which make me suspect this story may work better in a visual medium (I have yet to see the movie).

The book improves for the final fourth. The end of the journey is the best and the last bit where Pi makes landfall is somewhat clever. There’s meta discussion on what fiction actually means — if a ship sinks and everyone dies and there is only a sole survivor, does it honestly matter what happened to him afterward? It’s total philosophy 101: What is truth? Is it relative? It’s not especially profound but it’s contextually sound and makes an otherwise dull book shine. Briefly.

*The scene that makes me say almost instead of entirely — a mysterious living island — is my favorite in the novel. Back

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

blindass2The main thread of The Blind Assassin is the written accord of an elderly woman, Iris, now poor but once wealthy, recounting her early 20th century life in Toronto and Port Ticonderoga, Ontario. In between these chapters are split a novel written by Iris’ dead-by-her-own-hand sister Laura, titled The Blind Assassin. For the sake of clarity, every time I mention The Blind Assassin in this review from hereon, I mean Laura’s book and not Margaret Atwood’s. The stories within stories motif continues further in The Blind Assassin as it follows a nameless first person protagonist having an illicit love affair with man who tells her sci-fi stories… about a blind assassin. In between those novel chapters are newspaper clippings detailing the lives of the major figures in the primary narrative.

All of these threads are intertwined, and reading one allows you to make assumptions about the others. They tie together by the end, and questions are answered, in what is not so much a twist as a gradual reveal. This is where the narrative is most persuasive and compelling: piecing together the clues of what happened leading up to Laura’s suicide, deciding who is who, and why The Blind Assassin was written in the first place. There is a hint very early (the sci-fi storyteller making a lewd comment about his lover’s body of all things) that apprises the careful reader that something is not as it seems here.

The problem is that the story is split unevenly — Iris’ recollection of her youth takes up the vast majority of the 500+ page novel. Her story, while very well written, is absolutely something we have seen before. The political/gender/class tumult following the Great War. The fall of old money and the rise of new. The Old World is dead and so is God. Again, it’s well written. Iris as protagonist is not so much likeable — in fact, sometimes her actions are incredibly disappointing and there is a lingering sense that she was purposely ignoring clues that darker goingons were afoot — but instead a character you become more and more invested in as the story goes on. It’s sort of shocking to read a sympathetic mother who has such a negative opinion of her adult daughter, and this is compounded by a short scene where said daughter is described and you realize Iris was right about her. But then you remember the story is told via an unreliable narrator — Iris herself.

But the what happened? strand is strongest and the book could have done with more of the in-story love affair/science fiction tale of the blind assassin. There is so little of it that it sort of ruins the conceit it could have been a full-length, published novel. Then again, it’s my cynical belief that The Great Gatsby’s longevity and place in the American consciousness is heavily imputed to it’s length and how easy it is to read, so maybe The Blind Assassin could have followed suit.

I will also admit a bias against the bildungsroman. Both as a personal preference and because I find authors so rarely nail the passing of time and the changing of places and people particularly accurately or believably. I enjoyed this novel. I feel like this review is giving off a considerably more negative vibe than how I was feeling as I read the book. Seriously, it was good! So, I am not sure if this is something that I would consider an exception to that bias or if that bias is the key to why I feel like I should have liked this book more than I did (or at least wrote a more positive review).