Idiopathy by Sam Byers

August 14, 2013 § Leave a comment

Go on, call me shallow–or elitist, if you prefer: the most important thing for me in a novel is a beautiful sentence. Preferably a book’s worth of them. Last month I read an interview in Harper’s with Alexander Maksik in which he outlined his distaste for beauty for the sake of beauty—something I don’t think is actually possible. I haven’t read Maksik’s work, but I suspect it would contradict his argument. How could it not? Here’s the whole paragraph:

I’m not interested in lyricism for the sake of lyricism, beauty for the sake of beauty. I certainly love language and I pay close attention to the rhythms of sentences. I think prose should always be musical, but that doesn’t mean that it should necessarily be lyrical. I try to remember that language is a tool for telling stories, that it should reflect, and work in service of, narrative. I am always wary of the elegant variation. It’s a way of calling attention to myself, but I am not writing for myself. I am writing to be read. My responsibility is to tell a story and when story and character become secondary to language, I have failed. It is much easier to write beautiful sentences than it is to write beautiful stories. I want readers to be entirely unaware of me.

I have quite a few problems with this, but I’ll just focus on one. Maksik says it is much easier to write beautiful sentences than it is to write beautiful stories. Of course it is, if you know how to write beautiful sentences. Not many writers do. It’s easier to write adequate or poor sentences than it is to write a whole story composed of them too. It’s not actually easy to write beautiful sentences; if that were true, there would be a surfeit of books written exclusively in beautiful sentences, when the opposite is true: a surfeit of plot-driven books written in bad sentences, a surfeit of literary-ish books with a light dusting of beautiful sentences, a few plot-driven books written in good sentences, a tiny number of books composed entirely of beautiful sentences. Moreover, if a book doesn’t have beautiful sentences, why would I want to read it? I can’t care about a book of adequate sentences, however sparkling the plot and characters.

All this is by way of an introduction to talking about Sam Byers’ debut novel, Idiopathy. If, like me, you’re a lover of beautiful sentences, the first chapter will let you know you’ve picked up the right book. The story is about three friends, Katherine, Daniel and Nathan. Katherine and Daniel used to be a couple; now they are not. Two of the three have moderate to serious mental-health issues, and the third merely has a good dose of twenty-first century anguish. Not a lot actually happens: the three characters go about their daily lives, making and avoiding major and minor decisions. There are some crises, some turning points; things happen to people and the people think about them.

That’s about all I’m prepared to say on the subject of the plot since demanding a plot of this book would be like saying that the purpose of an hour-long hot bath with champagne is to get clean. Byers is excruciatingly good at that thing Alan Bennett describes: “The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.” In Byers, what reaches out is nothing so sappy as a hand to hold yours. Strangle you, perhaps, or steal your wallet, but you recognise it nonetheless. Here’s Katherine trying to improve her social situation: “She pined for [a sense of connection with others]; drew it towards her, felt herself open ever so slightly outwards, and then recoiled, convinced that the happiness she’d sought was now a responsibility to be managed in much the same way as she managed the height of chairs and the temperature of the air-con: a series of small adjustments which would result, as she made them, in the gradual erosion of her core.”

Idiopathy: A Novel

I’m a little on the fence about the ending, a semi-climactic scene with all three characters, plus Daniel’s new girlfriend Angelica, in the same room. On the one hand it’s well done, and Byers has resisted the presumably strong temptation to fall into farce. On the other, is a novel like this that takes place so much inside the characters’ heads, really served by the characters actually meeting up and attempting, in their twisted ways, to hash things out (or screw them up entirely, as the case may be)? Ah, plot, the bugbear of the literary writer; its absence the cause for shrill complaint from so many readers. Why do I read? Not for something as easily obtainable as story, not often. Story is everywhere: the Daily Mail, Jerry Springer, those magazines by the supermarket checkout promising the details of how Brangelina have adopted three Martian babies while getting divorced on a recent intergalactic Buddhist retreat. Just to be clear, Idiopathy does have a plot and a story, it’s simply that they are incidental to the sheer pleasure of the writing.

Idiopathy is a book that is always on the delicious verge of undermining itself with a kind of faux-earnest archness but somehow always stays true to its characters: they might not be entirely impressed with Byers’ portrayal of them, but they can’t accuse him of mocking. This is good, because mocking, however clever, is too easy and has ruined many an otherwise very intelligent and astute state-of-the-middle-classes novel. Read this book. There’ll be more from Sam Byers.


Mount Pleasant by Don Gillmor

August 1, 2013 § Leave a comment

If some books are mirrors and others are windows, Mount Pleasant, the second novel by well-known Canadian writer of non-fiction and children’s literature, Don Gillmor, is a curious mix of the two. The trials and tribulations of his character Harry seem at first to be familiar (“The first problem was that he and Gladys had bought at the top of the market. Perhaps it was the day the market peaked”) but ultimately turn out to be very first-world, very upper middle-class problems. We recognise his tastes, his aspirations and his surroundings, but his problem—and especially his pillow-soft landing—are not, and never will be, familiar, at least to anyone under fifty.

Harry, an oddly disengaged professor, lives in Toronto with his wife, Gladys. Their son, Ben, has left home and occasionally visits with his girlfriend Sarah, an earnest political sort who inspires in Harry the kind of sneering only possible in someone who is well aware they ought to have been more political, but instead opted for comfort. Early in the novel Harry spends a lot of time with his father, Dale, who is dying of cancer. After Dale’s death, the entire family is surprised—appalled might be a better description—to discover that he has left only a tiny inheritance. Harry thought Dale was worth around three million; he left less than twelve thousand between Harry, Harry’s sister, and Dale’s girlfriend.

Mount Pleasant by Don Gillmor

This is disastrous news for Harry, who has been counting on the inheritance to get him out of his huge debt in one fell swoop. Harry decides to start tracking down the money. Is his father’s employer, a money management firm, implicated? His father’s colleagues suddenly seem to have a lot to hide, and the situation gets a lot murkier before Harry finds any answers.

Mount Pleasant is intriguing. It’s written in a voice I don’t see much in Canada—the middle-class wit, laughing at his own fussy tastes (“Harry was making a squash risotto with Moroccan lamb and asparagus. The organic lamb cost $82, bought from the swarthy criminal at the boutique butcher shop.”) yet genuinely aggrieved that middle-classness these days is often simply a veneer of overspending masking a black hole of debt: “Harry had grown up in a world where university professors such as himself were financially comfortable and well respected, and butchers were dropouts with cleavers. Now, professors were marginalized and indebted, while butchers were wealthy artisans.” It’s literary and plot-driven, although on occasion it does mix genres a little too much for my taste. Realist novels should stay firmly realist; unless a novel is set up from the beginning as containing a great deal of improbable events or settings, the introduction of such never fails to annoy me. I won’t give away the plot, but it all gets a bit TV mafia/Rob and Doug Ford for a time.

Mount Pleasant is a funny novel, and Gillmor is very good on a sentence level: “[Harry] had grown up here, surrounded by the nation’s bankers, brokers, politicians, fixers, touts, lawyers, industrialists and heirs, a fountain of money that shot out of the ground, and in the gush of afterbirth came the nannies and cooks and gardeners who made multiculturalism such a success” is one example of his wry humour.

Throughout the novel, Harry’s debt is compared to a noise that (presumably) only he can hear: a periodontist’s drill, a roaring, an annoying buzz. This quickly becomes irritating. Another irritation—and big narrative disappointment—is the discovery that Harry and Gladys are never in real financial danger. They’re never going to be homeless, or foreclosed, or come out of the situation anything less than comfortable. After all, they paid over half a million dollars in 1989 for a house they still live in. Poor old boomers, hey?

If you think narrators must be likeable or at least balanced for a book to be worth reading, you could be forgiven for thinking I didn’t enjoy this book. Harry might be a pathetic, whiny idiot who’s never content with what he has, but that’s not what I hold against him. (It’s his entitlement that grates.) The novel is in fact clever, witty and well written but frequently frustrating. Mount Pleasant is a mixed bag, advertising big ideas but then refusing to let us actually examine the merchandise, and letting plotlines peter out if not part of the frantic chase for Harry’s father’s money. Gillmor, I expect, has found himself in an uncomfortable position, having written an ambitious Canadian “widescreen” novel (a term coined by John Self to describe novels that are stuffed with global political events and, often, a wide cast of characters who are all affected by the events in different ways) that will inevitably be compared with, most obviously, John Lanchester’s Capital but will also be the tall Canadian poppy to be criticised for both what works and what doesn’t, and for what he dares to do as well as what he doesn’t.

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