Sunday, June 25, 2006

Been there, read that...

I am lately always suspicious of a book that I can finish reading very quickly. The suspicion may arise from its perceived simplicity, which I fear may be a misperception. Or perhaps the misperception lies elsewhere, as in presuming that the reputation of the writer's abilities are founded, and that the reputation of his erudition is ill-founded. Admittedly, the main reason for picking up the book in question was because the reputation of the writer preceded him, in addition to the enjoyment of two of his previous efforts, both read at a time when my standards for choosing literature differ from what they are now. I should also mention that a comparison to Martin Amis's The Information played a role in its selection (which I found to be an irksome parallel when first drawn).

At this point, I suppose I should reveal that I am referring to Russell Smith's Muriella Pent. Taken as a whole, I did not enjoy this book, though I will not deny that there were moments of acerbic wit and clever turns of phrase that cannot go unmentioned. I also cannot discount Smith's overt jab at the literary arts community, which I'm sure he has been disillusioned by in his own experience, giving him ample reason to scoff at them so freely in M.P. What I cannot abide by, however, is the romantic angst that runs so heavily throughout the book, a subset of which is the award-worthy bad-sex-writing that intermittently appears. I don't care who you are: describing an act of sex in writing is always going to be cliché, and Smith's efforts are no exception. He tries to make it dirty (both literally and figuratively) and full of ardour, but it just comes off as banal.

I also don't for a minute believe that I'm reading about real writers within a thriving literary community in a large urban centre (i.e. Toronto), but this perception of inauthenticity could have to do with Smith's use of a quasi-suburban uptown manse within a gated community as the hub of all the activity, sexual and otherwise (though I suspect this choice has much to do with Smith's jab at the community being satirized).

As for the comparisons made to Amis's The Information, the only one that can be drawn is intent, which by my estimates, Smith accomplishes as effectively as Amis. The form, too, engages, with Smith's inclusion of letters, journal entries, e-mails, and snippets of writing. Content, I must opine, is lacklustre.

Okay, there. I have effectively panned an otherwise critically acclaimed work of fiction. Why have I done this? I fear it is because I can no longer enjoy a book that does not challenge me in some capacity. To me, quickly getting through hundreds of pages of ostensibly decent prose is no longer an indicator of enjoyment: being a real page-turner does not mean that the book is un-put-downable. All that it means is that the prose is too simple. Of course I realize that this is an over-generalization. There will be exceptions to this viewpoint, and there have been exceptions to this viewpoint. But it only became glaringly apparent to me that this is my viewpoint upon finishing M.P., and this is because it is demonstrably representative of everything that has been pulling me away from the largely unremarkable and unoriginal genre of fiction over the last few years. I have not, however, turned my back on fiction completely. I am rather drawn to the large, difficult tomes that encourage a furrowed brow as well as preclusion of their eventual completion. Self-flagellation aside, I like to be edified, and the implementation of rigorous self-imposed standards where literature is concerned is how I mean to do it: it is, truly, the only thing in the world over which I have complete control.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

The Leaving New York City Blues

A park bench in a city park is as ubiquitous as a downtown skyscraper in the same city. It happens to be the latitude and longitude of the city containing said objects that sets it apart from ostensibly similar physical features elsewhere on the grid.

Today I am sitting on a park bench in the eastern reaches of Toronto, facing Lake Ontario. The CN Tower is not immediately visible, but were I to walk a few southerly steps it would emerge from behind the trees. The day is a stellar one: I have nothing but sunshine, warmth, and a blank page to keep me company. For the moment, I feel content, but there remains a low grade gnawing that keeps taking my mind back to that other park bench in that other city, facing not a lake, but steel and concrete and brick and glass as far as the eye can see.

There is a different sort of beauty at play in Manhattan, one that begins as awe and not-quite-belief. The latter results from an inundation of people (noise and motion), of architecture (girth and intensity), of choice (consumption and sustenance), and of diversity (so abundant as to be almost unnoticeable). Once belief sets in, it is replaced by a desire to be everywhere all at once, and to do everything all at once. To make such an attempt is futile, unless you have nothing but time. When the realization strikes that time is fleeting, there arises a despair that is founded upon having failed the city somehow. There remains no other option but to return, to try and do better the next time.

Sitting on that park bench in Union Square a mere three days ago left me unable to articulate any of this. All that I knew was that I was an outsider, that none of it belonged to me: my brief glimpse of the city was all that I was to be afforded for the moment, everyday life intervening and dictating my swift removal from the streets of somebody else's town. Now I see things more plainly. The city belongs to no one in particular and to everyone in general. It belongs to the out-of-towners just as much as it belongs to the artists and writers, to the financiers and fashionistas, to the street urchins and hipsters.

Returning to Toronto has not left me embittered that I cannot call New York City my home. Rather, I feel newly enamoured with this other great urban centre. The beautiful June day could have something to do with this outlook, but I also suspect that I have adopted a newly found appreciation for this marvel of a city, which is most likely a direct result of having spent time in the most marvellous city of them all. I feel the potential of all that this city has in store for me: I have much yet to learn from it, to learn about it. The low-lying gnaw, however, does not abate. The rattle and hum stays with me too, despite my displacement to another park bench in another city, which is, in fact, not displacement at all: it is replacement, from which I expect to shortly be displaced.


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