So, I just landed about three hours ago, and it’s good to be back. Travelling is great fun, but it wears you out too. I am looking forward to my own bed and getting rid of my suitcase for a while, plus, I was running out of books. I read a bunch while I was in Ireland, but I didn’t get a chance to post here. (Sorry). Surprisingly, the internet cafes in Ireland all had fast connections and good computers, but I was never able to sit at one for than fifteen minutes. There was too much to see and do. So…. where was I? Before I left Barcelona I read The Lonely Hearts Club by Raul Nunez, which took only about a day. First and formost, the book suffers from a poor translation by a gentleman named Ed Emery. The text is littered with annoying British drivel like “he wondered what colour knickers she wore” and “I’m also very fond of this girl with a squint.” To be more precise, it wasn’t just a regular BBC British but more of an in your face Guy Ritchie movie British. I had to make an effort to keep the British accent from creeping into my head while I was reading, which was annoying because I was trying to relish the experience of reading this little novel set in the sweaty apartments of Barcelona while I was sitting in a sweaty apartment in Barcelona. The whiny British voice in my head just didn’t fit the scene. To be fair, Serpent’s Tail, the publisher, is a British press so I guess they’re just serving their audience. The book itself is very brief and somewhat derivative in a John Fante or Charles Bukowski sort of way in both style and theme. There are especially parallels to Fante’s Ask the Dust. Nunez’s hero, Antonio aka Frankie, shares with Fante’s Arturo Bandini a rooming house lifestyle, girl troubles, and a drinking problem. Bandini, though, is a noble character. He is struggling to be a writer, and he wants to find love. Frankie is just down on his luck, and this little book merely recounts a bizarre episode in his life. With spare prose, Fante manages to go deep into the psyche of his character. Nunez substitutes shock value for depth of character with predictable results. For a book that can be read in an afternoon, though, I’d say it’s worth a look, if only because it is entertaining in an enjoyable voyueristic sort of way. More later….
The recent debate between Malcolm Gladwell and Adam Gopnik has come and gone, and by all accounts, it was an engaging afternoon. In attendance were such Canadian luminaries as Douglas Coupland, former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson, her husband – the writer John Ralston Saul, and my friend Morry.Held at the University of Toronto’s Convocation Hall, the two New Yorker staff writers (and expat Canadians) wittily deconstructed “Canada”, reducing it to its fundamentals as they debated the question: Canada: Nation or Notion?CBC Radio recorded the hour-long debate for its Ideas program. Listen here (mp3).Macleans magazine, which organized the event, also has video footage of the debate.
A “Minority Opinion” has been posted over at the LBC Blog by the Co-op members who were not fans of the first LBC pick – Case Histories by Kate Atkinson. Some good discussion is already brewing in the comments. As for me, I fall somewhere in between the Minority Opinion and the LBC members who wholeheartedly endorse the book. To me, Case Histories is a worthwhile read, but perhaps not up to par with the big things that many seem to be expecting from the LBC. The most vocal commenters seem to pulling for the Co-op to choose a book that is of impeccable quality, yet has been ignored by big publishing houses and major reviewers. If such a book exists, I hope we can find it for our readers. “Read This” picks aside, I think the LBC may also prove valuable in determining whether or not the Great American (or British, or Chinese, etc.) Novel is in any danger of being ignored or underappreciated.
Canada’s national airwaves took on a decidedly literary tone last week with the latest installment of Canada Reads. This annual, week-long competition began in 2002 when five celebrity readers went to bat for the Canadian book of their choice. The panel would convince and cajole each other and at the end of each day, they would vote one of the contenders off the literary island. At the end of the week, one book survives.The 2007 winner is Lullabies For Little Criminals, by Heather O’Neill, and championed by Winnipeg songwriter and poet John K. Samson.In O’Neill’s novel, the 12-year-old narrator, neglected by her junkie father, “collects and covets the small crumbs of happiness she finds as she navigates the streets of Montreal’s red-light district.”Lullabies beat out Natasha and Other Stories by David Bezmozgis, (championed by Barenaked Ladies singer Steven Page), The Song of Kahunsha by Anosh Irani, (pitched by writer Donna Morrissey), Children of My Heart by Gabrielle Roy (defended by journalist Denise Bombardier), and Timothy Taylor’s Stanley Park (whose praises were sung by Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy).This year’s contest was an all-star competition, as each of the panelists had successfully championed the previous five winners:Page’s pick in 2002, Michael Ondaatje’s wonderful In The Skin of The Lion, set in the immigrant communities of Toronto between the two world wars, won that year’s contest.In 2003, Bombardier’s pick Next Episode by Hubert Aquin, was victorious. Cuddy outsung the competition in 2004, giving victory to Guy Vanderhaeghe’s The Last Crossing. In 2005, the crown went to Rockbound by Frank Parker Day, and pitched by Donna Morrissey. And John Samson’s first taste of victory came last year with his winning defense of A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews.Note that these books (and their contenders) include novels, short fiction and poetry, and are as likely to be drawn from Canada’s rich literary tradition as from the latest offerings from publishers. I might quibble with some of the choices (that Leonard Cohen’s second novel Beautiful Losers lost in 2005 still irks me, and I sided with Scott Thompson in his pitch for Mordecai Richler’s Cocksure in 2006). Still, sour grapes aside, it’s tremendously healthy for a country to be occasionally reminded of its often-overlooked literary past.Those of you who have read my bio or my Millions contributions over the years know that I don’t shy away from slipping a mention of my favorite songwriters and musicians – past and present – wherever I can possibly fit them in. So with that in mind, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that this year’s and last year’s championing defender, John K. Samson is himself, one hell of a songwriter, and three albums by his band, The Weakerthans, sit proudly in my record collection. Samson is also a founding publisher of Arbeiter Ring Publishing, specializing in social and political works.
I’m not a gamer, in any conventional sense. I like Brickbreaker, that insanely addictive game that seems to come standard on the Blackberry, and I can lose myself for twenty minutes or so in Tetris, especially if I’m on an airplane, but that’s about the extent of it. There are games that I’ve sometimes been tempted to play because I’ve heard that their worlds are beautiful, but I’ve resisted on the grounds that the absolute last thing I need is an absorbing beautiful thing to lose time in.
Given all this, I was surprised by how thoroughly I fell for Molleindustria’s Every Day The Same Dream when I encountered it a month or so ago. It’s a strange, somewhat harrowing little game that you play in your web browser, beautiful in the bleakest possible way. The world of the game is grey, constrained, populated by ghosts. The set-up is simple: your avatar gets up every morning and goes to work. Except that it isn’t quite every morning; after one or two rounds, you realize that your avatar’s caught in a repeating dream. And the thing is, chances are you’ve been here before: if you’ve ever felt trapped in a job that you hated, if you know what it’s like to get up every morning and set out into a pale workday that far too closely resembles yesterday and the day before and the day before that, then you may find this world suffused with a chilly familiarity. I did.
The game begins with your avatar standing next to his bed. The graphics are simple: he’s a white undifferentiated silhouette of a man. You walk him to the wardrobe and he puts on a suit. He walks past his wife, who’s perpetually cooking breakfast; she tells him that he’s running late. He walks down the corridor, descends in the elevator, gets in his car, drives to work, is yelled at by his silhouette boss, and walks down an endless line of cubicles populated by silhouette men who look exactly like him, until he finds a cubicle that’s empty. When he sits down in the empty cubicle the game begins again; he’s standing in his boxers by his bed.
The point of the game seems to be to break this numbing routine. Options and variations begin to reveal themselves: you can decline to put on your suit and then get fired for showing up at work in your underwear. Instead of getting in your car you can walk in the opposite direction to a desolate intersection, where just once in the game you’ll encounter a robed and hooded homeless man. “I can take you to a quiet place,” he tells you, and then he takes you to a graveyard where you linger for just a moment before you wake up standing by the bed again. You can get out of your car on the freeway, walk into a field and pet a cow. You can catch an orange leaf as it falls from a monochrome tree outside your office. You can walk past the endless row of cubicles onto a rooftop, and throw yourself over the edge.
Several commentators on various online forums devoted to gaming describe it as “a creepy little game.” I can’t really disagree, but it’s also beautiful.
The game was created two months ago by Molleindustria, which describes itself as “an Italian team of artists, designers and programmers that aims at starting a serious discussion about social and political implications of videogames.” Molleindustria was founded by Paolo Pedercini, born “somewhere in northern Italy” in 1981. He describes Every Day The Same Dream as “a slightly existential riff on the theme of alienation and refusal of labor.”
One can spend hours trying to decipher the meaning of the game (and people have, endlessly, in the afore-mentioned gaming forums.) But meaning aside, and even aside from the sad beauty of the game’s gray world, I was thinking about it the other day and I realized part of its appeal: it reminds me, in its very existence, of what the Internet used to be.
I came online in the mid-90s. People were pouring online in those days, but not everyone was there yet; I was far enough over on the leading edge of the curve that my classmates at The School of Toronto Dance Theatre thought I was exotic for having a computer and an email address, but far enough behind that astonishing things had already been done. The artistic potential of the Web had become apparent over the previous several years, and some of the websites I encountered were absolutely beautiful. I began teaching myself HTML code in my bedroom at night.
“The web is still artistically driven by unaffiliated labors of love,” the website designer Paul Frost wrote, sometime during that period.
I’m sometimes nostalgic for what the web was back then. I don’t claim that it was better. It was just different. There were high barriers for entry, and it wasn’t nearly as useful: aspects of the web that I take for granted today (buying groceries online, booking plane tickets, etc.) weren’t really there yet. But at the same time it was a stranger, wilder, in some ways more beautiful place.
Every Day The Same Dream reminds me of that lost web. It’s nothing if not an unaffiliated labor of love.
In John Hodgman’s charming 2005 miscellany The Areas of My Expertise, “Were You Aware Of It?” serves as a recurring title for astonishing “facts.” One of my favorite among these inclusions reveals that:Jack Ruby owed seventeen dachshunds, whom he referred to as “his children.” In an astonishing coincidence, all of his dogs were named either Lincoln, Kennedy, or Oswald, except one, which was named “Li’l Grassy Knoll.” Meanwhile, Jacqueline Kennedy kept seventeen cats. She disliked the animals, but kept a pack of trained felines for the hunting of voles. This was an ancient European pastime akin to fox hunting, but replacing the dogs with cats, the fox with voles and/or shrews (moles and mice are disqualifiers), and the horses with single-speed bicycles. Her passion for the sport, which bordered on addiction, was considered a potential liability by some within the White House, who feared that many in mainstream America, who rarely eat vole, would perceive the sport as an aristocratic European fancy. Still, it was practiced on the sly, and as a result, most of Washington, D.C., is still voleless. Continuing in the great Hodgman-ian tradition of “Were You Aware Of It?”, I submit the astonishing (and, unlike Hodgeman’s, completely true) fact that the illustrious London Review of Books publishes personal ads. (I just began a subscription, so this is news to me.) And they are quite the literary genre: haiku-ishly, Sapphic fragment-ally tantalizing their in brevity, they recall that six word short story of Hemingway’s (“For Sale. Baby Shoes. Never Used.”) and seem to offer kernels of novelish potential to those in the market for adventures in literary romance:M, 48, reaching the end of a marriage of convenience, clings to the belief that there still may be one beautiful woman left who values kindness above all else. Few demands other than intimacy in the beginning, in exchange a generous monthly allowance and the opportunity to travel.Sweet-natured F, 38, battling Dorothea Brooke tendencies. Seeks mildly eccentric unattached man with good heart.Don’t tell me about your current literary read, I’ll just sigh at the leaden predictability of it all, start twitching after you say “it stays with you” and grate my teeth like two whirling quern stones when you tell me you don’t want to see the film until you’ve finished the book. Instead why not tell me about America’s got talent and your favorite continental lager? Averring but occasionally surprising prof.Having just retired my ambition is to become the next Ernst Blofeld. I am looking for a lady to enjoy life with while I take over the world from my headquarters in South-East London.Update: Via commenter Imani, a collection of LRB personals was published in 2006: They Call Me Naughty Lola: Personal Ads from the London Review of Books