Monday, December 06, 2010

Toronto Life Regrets The Error

"For one thing, Toronto may have dodged a bullet: Smitherman was a lousy candidate who never managed to define what he believed in ... He struck me as nervous and shifty -- not a natural leader."
-- Toronto Life, Editor's Letter by Sarah Fulford, January 2011

"[T]he city is ready to bust out of its self-stifling punctiliousness … We need a brash mayor who will throw some weight around. Which brings us to George Smitherman, the oddsmakers’ favourite in the October 25 mayoral election … Smitherman is staking his campaign on the issue of job creation, while his rivals are proposing no end of brazen ideas—from subway networks to privatizations to casinos—in an effort to be what he already is: larger than life.

The Conservative strategist Jaime Watt—one of the architects of the Harris Conservatives’ two majority election victories and a partner with Navigator, the PR firm, and now one of the key players on Smitherman’s campaign team—once said that the key to image management isn’t to make a politician into someone he’s not, but to convince voters that a particular politician, warts and all, is the person they want to elect for the job at hand. And George Smitherman is looking more and more like the proverbial right guy in the right place at the right time."
-- Toronto Life, 50 Reasons to Love Toronto, Philip Preville, June 2010

Funny Person Jessica Holmes Writes Funny Book

Funny Ladies
Canadian Jessica Holmes is the latest female comedian to trade stage for page
Chatelaine | October 2010 | Ryan Bigge

In January 2009, exactly two years after Vanity Fair claimed women aren’t as funny as men, Tina Fey got revenge by appearing on the magazine’s cover. Not only are female comics as hilarious as their male counterparts, they are also now storming bestseller lists as well as sitcoms and stages. And their rising popularity means female funnybooks are now being taken very seriously (so to speak) by publishers and readers alike.

Royal Canadian Air Farce’s Jessica Holmes is the latest comedian to humorously over-share with her new memoir, I Love Your Laugh: Finding the Light in My Screwball Life. Her book combines family zaniness (her father’s predilection for buying crappy brown cars) with an emotionally revealing look at various professional and personal humiliations (such as going to a drugstore to return a box of condoms during the height of her Air Farce fame).

Holmes’ philosophy is that you cannot die from embarrassment — it will only make you stronger (and funnier): “Whatever you experience at the time, hopefully in the end it’s something you can laugh about.”

Today Holmes has plenty of company on bookstore shelves, including The Daily Show’s Samantha Bee (I Know I Am, But What Are You?) and Sarah Silverman (The Bedwetter). But this wasn’t the case when she began the book. “It was only after I started writing that Kathy Griffin’s book came out,” Holmes explains. “I thought about studying the technique for writing a book, but in the end I just decided to literally put what was in my brain down on paper.”

While Holmes jokes that “books don’t pay the mortgage” because most authors earn “six cents an hour,” the quip isn’t entirely accurate. In October 2008, Tina Fey signed a book contract worth an estimated $5 million — proving that female punch lines can be very good for a publisher’s bottom line.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Steve Martin Name Checks Deborah Solomon In My Chatelaine Interview

I interviewed Steve Martin for Chatelaine back in September and he mentioned Deborah Solomon as an art writer he admires. Given the recent hullabaloo about Martin's recent appearance at the 92nd Street Y (where he was unsuccessfully interviewed by Ms. Solomon), I thought I'd post it here. I should also mention that, like Solomon's Q&As in the NYTM, my interview with Martin was condensed and edited.

All About Steve
We talked to the master comedian, actor and banjo player about his love of writing and his new novel, An Object of Beauty
Chatelaine | December 2010 | Ryan Bigge

From culture blog
Steve Martin remains best known for his comedy – be it as an Academy Awards co-host, Tina Fey’s one-time love interest on 30 Rock, doting boyfriend to Meryl Streep in It’s Complicated or, of course, his wild and crazy stand-up days. But over the past 10 years he has quietly developed a respectable career as a man of letters. Along with a couple of novellas, 2001’s Shopgirl (about a sad young woman selling gloves at Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills) and 2003’s The Pleasure of My Company (about a young man with obsessive-compulsive disorder) Martin has also written the memoir Born Standing Up (2007), which details how he conquered the stand-up world before quitting forever in 1981 to focus on feature films. The newest addition to Martin’s book list is An Object of Beauty, his first full-length novel. “I wanted to blend art history with a novel,” Martin explains. “And making the narrator an art writer gave me an excuse to recall what I thought were some fascinating historical stories about the art world.”

Spanning 18 years, An Object of Beauty is a dark and wry look at the 1990s boom and eventual bust of the contemporary art market in New York. The novel follows the exploits of a young, stylish and ambitious woman named Lacey Yeager who starts as an underling at Sotheby’s auction house and eventually opens her own gallery in Chelsea. Along the way she breaks a variety of hearts, inflicting multiple fractures on an art-collecting playboy named Patrice Claire. Narrated by Daniel Chester French Franks (an art writer and friend of Lacey), An Object of Beauty is filled with sharp and witty observations about fashion, Manhattan rituals and the culture of money. And, as an added bonus, the novel includes various colour reproductions of famous artworks (including pieces by Andy Warhol and Ed Ruscha), providing Martin with an opportunity to dabble as a curator.

Despite recently turning 65, Martin has no desire to slow down. “I don’t even know what that means,” he says. “Sometimes for me, retiring is sitting down to write a book and doing nothing else. But in a sense I am retired since I don’t have a job.” Chatelaine spoke with Martin by telephone from his New York home about his favourite kinds of literary characters, his brand-new Twitter account and the financial (and artistic) genius of Andy Warhol.

What inspired An Object of Beauty?
I have been fascinated with art and the art world and how they overlap my whole life. I’ve also been fascinated with a certain type of character that exists in both men and women: the narcissistic personality or sociopath, although I don’t like to use those terms because I think they ruin books. I’ve seen these characters come and go throughout my life and since I’m a writer, I’m always looking for things to write about.

Why did you decide to include colour reproductions, like Pablo Picasso’s Woman with Pears and Willem de Koonig’s Woman I, in your book?
I found myself describing the pictures – and I really enjoyed writing those descriptions – and I suddenly thought “Why not create an illustrated novel?” Which, by the way, is not unique: they used to do woodcuts in novels. It felt interesting to have colour photographs of paintings in a novel. I hope the images help the description’s poetry rather than inhibit them.

An Object of Beauty includes a lot of references to Andy Warhol: There’s an image of his Marilyn silkscreen; the character Lacey Yeager buys a Warhol and you describe the work of Picasso and Warhol as equivalent “objects of beauty.” What’s so appealing about Warhol?
Not only is Warhol important as an artist, like Roy Lichtenstein, he was also a financial wonder during the period of time I describe in the novel. He was really leading the way in terms of the art world and the auction houses. As I explain in the book, his phenomenal prices were actually making work by new artists more valuable.

You’ve written two novellas before, but this book is your first full-length novel. Did you experience any significant challenges while writing the longer work?
I tend to write terse. And I knew I wanted to write a longer book. So I wrote about a longer period of time. Both Shopgirl and The Pleasure of my Company were about events that occurred over about two years. This book takes place over 18 years. So that was one way I tricked myself into writing a longer book.

You’ve written a number of screenplays, including L.A. Story and Roxanne. Do you approach fiction and screenplays differently?
Yes, completely different. A screenplay is an interface that is not an end in itself. It’s almost a shorthand or a guide, while a book is the final thing. You craft every sentence. You let it stew. You put it down for three months. You pick it back up. You read it aloud to yourself. I read it to my dog. I worry over individual choices of words for weeks.

Who are some of your favourite authors?
In terms of this book, I would say my favourite authors are art writers. Adam Gopnik – but he hasn’t written about art lately. Peter Schjeldahl. John Richardson. And Deborah Solomon, who only writes sporadically about art. She wrote the Joseph Cornell biography and is working on biography of Norman Rockwell.

Is there something you’re reading right now that you’re exciting about?
Not right now because I’m overwhelmed. But I do recommend the John Richardson biography of Picasso.

What projects do you have coming up next?
I’m working on another bluegrass-banjo album that will be out in February. It’s called Rare Bird Alert. And I have a movie coming out next year that I’m quite proud of called The Big Year starring Owen Wilson and Jack Black.

And you also recently joined Twitter. Last week you wrote “Reading other people’s Tweets, I think I’m getting the hang of it now. 9:23am: cleaning toenails.”
Yes. I do jokes. I don’t do personal stuff. I’m not sure how long it will last. I’m just experimenting. But it’s fun.

SMS MLS = Stned Dk Hdwd Thruout

The recent downturn in the real estate market apparently means that agents can no longer afford to use vowels.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Revenge of SuperFreakonomics in 3-D!

This a funny chart I did for the current (December) issue of ROB magazine, featuring a series of proposed films based on business books. Prepare to LOL.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Unsubtle Upsell Via

I understand I'm being upsold, but do you really have to be so blunt about it?

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Sharrow Minded: The Lose-Lose Compromise of Toronto Bike Lanes

I'm happy to report a bit of good news has occurred since I got all whiny about sharrows in the current issue of Spacing -- Bixi Toronto now has over 800 members signed up. (When my article went to press there were only 400). That's obviously very encouraging. (I should note that despite already owning a bike, I've signed up for Bixi. You should too.)

To celebrate, I'm posting the aforementioned article on my blog. I've also included two photos of a bike lane protest intervention at Harbord and Borden that I'm rather fond of.

Sharrow Minded
The large ebbs and little flows of bike culture in Toronto
Spacing | Fall 2010 | Ryan Bigge

In the spring of this year, sharrows appeared on College Street west of Manning. Neither a type of bird nor a new venereal disease, sharrows consist of a bike icon and two chevrons (arrow thingies) and are short for “shared lane pavement marking.” The first word of that phrase is clearly the most crucial, since “share” appears no less than nine times in the City of Toronto’s PDF explanation. The intent of sharrows is to remind drivers that cyclists also belong on the road, and are being tried on a few major downtown streets where it’s not possible to build a proper bike lane.

But the sharing message is clearly not being universally heard; this past summer, campaign vehicles belonging to both Joe Pantalone (a Smart car) and Rob Ford (a motorhome) were photographed parked in bike lanes. These incidents served as a reminders that Toronto cycling lanes continue to be treated as though they were invisible. If drivers refuse to recognize the legitimacy of the bicycle, then peaceful co-existence through sharrows is impossible, no matter how many times a municipal bureaucrat tells us that sharing, sharing, sharing, sharing, sharing, sharing, sharing, sharing, sharing the road is right thing to do.

The best description of the problem comes courtesy of Spacing editor Shawn Micallef, who wrote in a March 2010 column in Eye Weekly that “Toronto is in the weird in-between space of being almost a full-on alpha city, embracing all its big-cityness, and just another second-tier city in the eastern part of North America.” In alpha cities like New York, driving is awful, while in second-tier cities, driving is still relatively pleasant. As Micallef concludes, “we’re in that middle zone of cityness: though it can be hard to drive here, the city’s transit and cycling infrastructures haven’t caught up to make not-driving a completely viable option for everybody.”

This in-between state helps explain the lose-lose political compromise of the sharrows and the defeat of the University bike lane trial in early 2010. Without realistic methods of alternative transportation, who can blame drivers for thinking they still deserve to own the road? Study after study demonstrates that creating a safe and inviting cycling infrastructure requires protected bike lanes that form a continuous grid. Making this happen, however, will require more than the benign neglect of the David Miller era – a mayor who prided himself on appearing to promote cycling. One can only imagine what a mayor actively hostile toward cyclists will accomplish in four years.

By not delivering on the ten-year cycling plan created in 2001 that promised 1,000 km of bike route (we got less than half instead), Miller has provided cycling opponents with a legitimate opportunity to backpedal on bike lanes. Certainly when compared with 2005, when only 1 km worth of bike lane was built, David Miller’s second term in office has provided the appearance of momentum. There were 34.9 km of bike lane created in 2008, 13 km in 2009, and 2010 promises and additional 5 km of lanes, along with 7.1 km of sharrows. Which makes this momentum illusionary, akin to someone working up a sweat on a stationary bicycle.

Granted, there have been some victories including the formation and continued growth of the Toronto Cyclists Union, secure bike lockers at Union Station the bittersweet success of the Jarvis street makeover; and the 2.1 magnificent kilometers that comprise the West Toronto RailPath. According to a January 2010 City of Toronto Cycling Survey, there has been a 6% increase in the number of cyclists in Toronto over the last decade (from 48% to 54%). However, “when asked to rate the quality of cycling routes and facilities in the city today, scores are the same, or in some cases, directionally lower than there were reported 10 years ago.”

This fall's launch of the Bixi bike program in Toronto will serve as an unofficial referendum on whether or not cycling is considered to be a safe and mainstream method of transportation. If Bixi fails to get 1,000 subscribers before the November 30 deadline the initiative will be cancelled (as this went to press nearly 500 people had signed up since Bixi launched on July 28). And who can blame people for not signing up for a bike share program in a city where cycling can be as aggravating as driving or public transit? (The 2009 Cycling Survey notes that “only one-third of cyclists say they are comfortable biking on major roads without bike lanes.”) David Miller proudly promoting Bixi without providing an adequate bike grid is putting the car(t) before the bike.

Bike lanes might seem like a minor issue given the various challenges the city faces, but our underperforming cycling grid is one of the reasons that Toronto has never appeared in Monocle’s Top 25 Liveable Cities index. (Montreal and Vancouver, meanwhile, both have.) While Monocle is guilty of promoting expensive lifestyle consumerism for global elites, it treats public transportation with the seriousness it deserves. As editor-in-chief Tyler Brule explained to in June of this year, Copenhagen ranks highly because you can take a train from the airport to downtown “and then you can immediately get on a bicycle and never have to deal with a car ever again. That’s why it does well.”

Toronto politicians and cyclists need to be more aggressive about the future of spokes on pavement. Instead of looking at cycling developments on a year-by-year basis, it might be more effective (if not more depressing) to consider the long-term picture. In the spring of this year a small photocopied letter to the editor of the Toronto Star appeared on various Toronto street poles. Titled “Real Bike Lanes Are Long Overdue!” it began by asking “What good is a bicycle lane if cars are allowed to park in it? The bicycle lanes of Toronto are an insult to cyclists. At best, they are ornamental.” The letter writer, Noa Stroyman, goes on to note that “The roughest pavement is always that which is in the bike lanes” and argues for protected, European-style bike lanes “as wide as a car lane, physically divided from the car lanes by a curb or poles.”

This combination wish- and shit-list is nothing new. Which was exactly the point the person who stapled this photocopy everywhere was trying to make. The letter was published on Sunday, March 12, 1995. Fifteen years later, the same problems remain. The number of kilometers of bike lane in Toronto is a meaningless metric until the psychology of cycling changes.

Becoming an alpha city, or even a world-class city requires multiple transportation options. Remaining a second-tier city means saying “no” to anything that might challenge the dominance of the automobile. By that measure, Toronto remains a sharrow-minded, second-tier city.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Bike Lanes As Politicized As Abortion According to Rob Ford

I was reading my brand new copy of dandyhorse yesterday, which features profiles of various cyclists and/or mayoral candidates. I could not help but choke on the final Q&A from the Rob Ford profile:
What about the Toronto Bike Plan?
The problem with bicycles is that they have become a political issue -- saying I'll put in bike lanes gets the support of cyclists, but the rest of the voters will hate me. The debate has become equivalent to abortion -- whatever I say, someone will be angry.
No further comment required.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Your Content Strategy Homework For This Week’s Toronto CS Meetup

In the spirit of the new school year, the Toronto Content Strategy Meetup has decided to assign a bit of homework for the 6:30pm, Thursday  September 16 edition.

If you’re interested in attending (and why wouldn’t you be?) please listen (or watch) this recent one hour pod- / videocast of content strategy guru Kristina Halverson being interviewed by User Interface Engineering CEO Jared Spool.

We’ll drink a few beers and debate a few ideas and issues raised during the interview, including:

1) When should you consider hiring an SEO expert instead of a content strategist (and vice-versa?)
2) How critical are content strategy success stories for building momentum within the discipline and how can they best be achieved?
3) Under what circumstances can/should information architecture and content strategy be handled by the same person?
4) What is the best way to measure the overall effectiveness of content strategy for clients?

See you all there!

Friday, September 03, 2010

The Scariest Paragraph About Freelancing I Have Ever Read

Freelancing is that remarkable stretch from February to December 2009, where I wrote entire features… using only my phone, a first-generation iPhone jailbroken for T-mobile, bought for $100 from a friend at Mac Week. That was because my computer had broken and I couldn't afford a replacement.

(Richard Morgan's ghost story for The Awl).

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Elizabeth Spiers on Digital Mistakes

Q: How do traditional mainstream get digital products wrong?
A: (I gave a talk about this a couple of weeks ago, so from my notes:) They don't understand their audiences because they're not used to using data aggressively.
They view their sites as mere brand extensions and fail to treat them as stand-alone media properties.
They don't understand usability and make their sites pretty but impossible to navigate, and then naively think they'll educate their users to find their content.
They don't understand Web metabolism and produce content that's stale.
They think Web content is inherently inferior when it's merely different, and create inferior Web products as a result then wonder why they're not succeeding.
They fail to monetize their products properly, then underpay talent and wonder why they can't recruit good writers.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Algorithmic Niche Culture is Killing the Romance: Toronto Star Reprint

Books are losing out to the algorithms of love
The mathematics of identifying niche behaviour and interests promises to bring like-minded people together. But it may be tearing society apart
Toronto Star | August 27, 2010 | Ryan Bigge

Last month in, Mark Oppenheimer wrote about the latest trauma inflicted by the e-book revolution. It wasn’t lower prices turning novelists into ever more wretched paupers or copyright quandaries that make it impossible to share your favourite e-book with friends. No, the problem for Oppenheimer was that e-book readers make it impossible for randy bibliophiles to judge prospective lovers by their collection of book covers.
“As the Kindle and Nook march on, people’s reading choices will increasingly be hidden from view,” writes Oppenheimer. “We’ll go into people’s houses or squeeze next to them on the subway, and we’ll no longer be able to know them, or judge them, or love them, or reject them, based on the books they carry.”
His panic turned out to be premature, however. Two days before Oppenheimer published his lament, launched “a dating site that allows you to find people based on their book tastes.” Sadly, is not an anomaly, as specialty dating services are becoming increasingly common — Apple cult members have, indie rock fans visit and followers of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism have And while such sites should eventually serve to cull their respective populations through vicious inbreeding, they reflect a larger problem — the triumph of algorithmic niche culture.
As Devin Leonard explains in the August issue of Wired, is trying to personalize the Internet by soliciting people’s opinions, beliefs and tastes and then mining the data “for correlations that provide precisely tailored recommendations for each user.” is not alone, with similar services provided by The interest in these sites are obvious — there’s big money in artificial serendipity. In September of 2009, Netflix awarded a $1 million prize to a team of statisticians and computer engineers who created movie rental recommendation software that was 10 per cent more accurate.
The problem isn’t that the educated guesses of Netflix or are inaccurate — quite the opposite. But the mathematics behind the niche-ification of everything threatens to destroy the very fabric of democratic society. Or, at the very least, create some very nasty blog postings.

In a May article in The New York Review of Books about the Tea Party movement and the “politics of the libertarian mob,” Mark Lilla refers to Bill Bishop’s 2009 book The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart. As Lilla notes, “People with higher degrees who care about food and wine, support gay rights, and want few children but good Internet connections have been gravitating to urban centres on the two coasts, while churchgoing families that drive everywhere, socialize with relatives, and send their kids to state universities have been heading to the growing exurbs of the southern and mountain states.” This, as you can imagine, causes problems for politicians trying to find consensus among an increasingly polarized electorate.
But according to Adam Sternbergh, things are not entirely bleak. In the January 2010 issue of New York magazine, he explained that we are still united by events like Avatar and the launch of the iPad, but the binding mechanism is now pre-announcement buzz and speculation. “Once we experience something en masse — or even as we experience it — we splinter off to our myriad forums to broadcast our personal takes.”
Another reason to avoid complete despair is that even a NASA supercomputer is unable to persuade us to enjoy certain algorithmically generated suggestions. Writing in the New York Times Magazine last October, Rob Walker explained how the Internet radio service Pandora was slicing songs into their atomic parts of enjoyability to better determine listener matches. The problems Pandora has encountered (music fans made irate by suggestions such as Celine Dion or Journey) will be familiar to anyone ever set up on a blind date by friends.
Which highlights the biggest blind spot of the algorithmic niche — its target audience is irrational, unpredictable, contradictory human beings. And not taking this into account appears to be the largest predictive failure of them all. If we can’t trust Pandora to pick a great song, it’s unlikely that can help us locate a soulmate.
As is so often the case, a popular sitcom provides necessary wisdom and perspective. During the first season of Modern Family, a recently remarried Jay explains to his 30-something son Mitchell that opposites not only do, but should, attract. “We’re both with people different from us and that’s gonna create stuff,” notes Jay. “But you want different. Your mom and I were perfect on paper and you know how that ended.”
It’s good advice, although undercut slightly by the episode’s conclusion, wherein Jay’s wife Gloria mistakenly believes her husband is about to marry a life-sized statue of a dog butler named Barkley. Then again, love is also blind. Which means it doesn’t matter if the boy or girl sitting across from you in the subway is reading Stieg Larsson or Gary Shteyngart. As long as they’re cute (and hate Journey) the complex and irrational numbers that comprise the algebra of love will take care of the rest.


Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Toronto Content Strategy Group Meeting This Thursday

As readers may or may not have noticed in the About Me section of my blog, I now offer content strategy services, along with cultural journalism and editing. (I also make and drink classic cocktails, but that’s less relevant to my professional aspirations).

Anyway, James Houston (@jimmy2bills ) has been kind enough to organize a Toronto Content Strategy Group. We meet the third Thursday of every month.

The next meeting is this Thursday, August 19, 2010 starting at 6pm at the Rivoli, upstairs. I’ve attended the last two meetings, and they’ve been fun and engaging. (Meetup details here).

The idea is to debate and define best practices for the developing discipline of Content Strategy through short, informal presentations and beer-fueled discussions. (We also hope to bring in guest speakers at some point this spring.)

Because there is a lot of overlap between web editors, information architects, copywriters and other content people, the field of CS attracts a diverse bunch, producing lively conversations about the current role and future evolution of the discipline. In short, there is more and more content out there on the web, and producing valuable words that are easily findable is going to be increasingly important over the next five years and beyond.

For those who have heard the term Content Strategy being tossed around, but aren’t 100 percent sure what it’s all about, I recommend the following:

Friday, August 13, 2010

Greedy Little Eyes by Billie Livingston (Book Review Reprint)

Greedy Little Eyes: Stories of observance
A scavenger of the wistful and generous sort
Toronto Star | August 7, 2010 | Ryan Bigge

In a recent article for Slate, Jessica Winter discussed how writer-director Noah Baumbach (Greenberg; The Squid and the Whale) takes great pleasure in populating his films with narcissists and misanthropes.

As if that were not enough, many of these disagreeable characters also have greedy little eyes, since, as Winter argues, “A Baumbach protagonist wears his pretensions like armor, but the pose of detachment is also the stance of the fiction writer or critic (incidentally, Baumbach is the son of both), who benefits from a ruthless facility for treating events and people as potential content to be appropriated or evaluated.”

In her new collection of short stories, Greedy Little Eyes, Billie Livingston, or rather one of her protagonists (a freelance magazine journalist named Lila), makes a similar observation in “Candy From a Stranger’s Mouth.” As Lila studies two adulterous lovers in a restaurant, she notes that “I have been accused, in the past, of sitting back, busily thinking up pithy descriptors that I might later use in an article. To some people this is the behaviour of a scavenger.”

Livingston might be a scavenger, but she does not have a ruthless facility. Her eyes are greedy but her stories are generous and wistful as they borrow and return delicate family secrets without breaking them. While her stories are also filled with narcissists and misanthropes, they are almost always antagonists, trying to ruin or frustrate the ambitions of dependable, reliable, plodding heroines: An unappreciated woman who works as an assistant manager at a music store. A woman stuck running a paper store out of family obligation. A librarian with an overprotective father who’s trying to ruin her marriage. All deserve better.

There are, however, moments of redemption and revenge, such as the arrest of a strange attacker in “Make Yourself Feel Better” and the surreal, gorgeous violence of “Did You Grow Up with Money?”

While much of Livingston’s material is relevant and contemporary (an affair revealed by Facebook snooping; Robert Pickton’s pig farm) a few stories feel dusty, such as a fictional retelling of Vancouver performance artist Rick Gibson’s unsuccessful attempt to drop a 25-kg block of concrete onto a rat named Sniffy in 1990. This might be personal bias, but as an ex-Vancouverite who survived the wackadoodle reign of Socred premier Bill Vander Zalm (1986-1991), I feel that no fiction should ever try and compete with the off-kilter reality of that era.

Then again, the little eyes of book reviewers are often jaded. Never satisfied, always making further demands from the authors they are asked to evaluate. Livingston offers many memorable sentences: “The man on the ground struggles with the vagueness of a nature-show cheetah just shot with tranquilizer.” “To my ears the words had a liquid quality, as if they’d been left out in the rain.” “Something in him looked refurbished to me.”

But her default prose style is dependable and unflashy, just like her heroines. I don’t wish to sound greedy (or worse, display a ruthless facility for evaluation), but this collection could use at least another dozen sparkly moments of wordplay. Such prosaic lives certainly deserve to be sprinkled with a bit more magic of the ordinary.


Monday, August 09, 2010

Exposed! Philip Carr-Gomm's A Brief History of Nakedness

Picture and a thousand words: Philip Carr-Gomm's A Brief History of Nakedness 
Toronto Star | August 8, 2010 | Ryan Bigge

Reaktion Books

It’s safe to say that Philip Carr-Gomm is the rare man of letters who would admit to reading Playboy for the centrefolds, rather than the articles. His new book, A Brief History of Nakedness, is exactly what it sounds like, complete with numerous photographs such as the one seen above. But rather than providing flimsy justifications for his ogling, the book instead offers a sustained mediation on the spiritual, cultural and political implications of being naked in public.

The 50 peaceful women seen here are part of Baring Witness, a group of Iraq war protesters who posed nude in West Marin County, California, in November of 2002. As Carr-Gomm argues, “Nakedness makes a human being particularly vulnerable but in certain circumstances strangely powerful, which is why it has become so popular as a vehicle for political protest.” According to Carr-Gomm, by disrobing, protestors demonstrate that they are both fearless and have nothing to hide.

At least, that’s the ideal situation. Sometimes the political intentions of being in the buff can get lost, as happened during the recent expressions of G20 activism. “There’s a naked guy at Queen and Peter,” @one_more_night tweeted. “I think he’s protesting clothes.”

For a cold, northern country, there’s a surprising amount of clothing animosity in Canada. (Our country’s first nudist club formed in 1918, while it took until 1929 for the United States to be able to say the same.) In his book, Carr-Gomm mentions the Toronto-based Naked News (“the program with nothing to hide”), Montreal-born artist Cosimo Cavallaro (who, in 2005, created a chocolate sculpture of a nude Christ entitled Sweet Jesus) and the World Naked Bike Ride (created in 2004 by Vancouver’s Conrad Schmidt).

And, of course, the Doukhobors. A radical sect of Ukrainian Christians, the Doukhobors (which translates into “spirit wrestlers”) were considered heretics by the Orthodox Church and generally irritated the Russian government. So in 1899 the Doukhobors were encouraged to move their troublemaking to Canada, where they were promised 65 hectares of free land, a bracing climate, equitable laws, peace and prosperity. More than a third of the population (nearly 8,000) said yes, but by 1903 they were unhappy, and an extremist faction called the Sons of Freedom emerged, inspired by the Quakers and Leo Tolstoy. As Carr-Gomm notes, the Sons of Freedom “decided to mount a sustained campaign of protest against the government, whom they believed had reneged on their promises regarding land rights and were enforcing compulsory education in government schools.”

In May of 1903 over 45 Doukhobors protested by marching naked, were charged with “nudism” and sentenced to jail. Naked skirmishes between the Canadian government and the Doukhobors continued into the 1970s.

The Doukhobors were a rare instance of a religious sect demanding political reform through nudity. But there are plenty of historical examples that demonstrate the more purely spiritual aspects of nudity. And given that Carr-Gomm is the author of six different books with the word “druid” in the title (including In the Grove of the Druids and The Druid Way), it’s unsurprising that the spirituality of being in the buff captured his attention.

Druids performed certain rituals naked, or as they called it, sky-clad. Not that the druids had a monopoly on weirdness. As Carr-Gomm notes in a section about folk-magic: “English customs included sweeping a room naked on Midwinter night to then dream of your future husband, entering a lake or river naked at midnight to discover his face revealed on the surface of the water, and undressing at a crossroads on St. George’s night.” (Presumably, if none of these tactics worked, then your future husband was just not that into you.)

But even some Christians have adopted the pioneering work of Adam and Eve and embraced “naturism.” As Carr-Gomm points out, there are Christian Nudist Convocations along with provocatively titled books such as The Naked Christian: What God Sees When He Looks Right Through Me.

Given the general level of permissiveness toward being starkers, even a family newspaper like the Star can publish the Baring Witness women seen here without having to worry about angry mobs rioting outside 1 Yonge St. (Although the paper would go bankrupt if it was forced to pay $550,000 per nipple, which is the fine that CBS received from the Federal Communications Commission for the Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction.) Spencer Tunick has built a career out of his photographs of multitudes of naked people posing in public places. And neither Puppetry of the Penis nor the Canadian version of the television show How To Look Good Naked generated much outrage.

To be shocking now requires “supernakedness,” which is how one reviewer described performance artist Annie Sprinkle’s show A Public Cervix Announcement. (The curious should use their imagination to figure out what supernakedness might entail. Or, failing that, consult Google.) As if to acknowledge that the coyness of the traditional nudie calendar is no longer effective or eye-catching, Eizo, a German medical imaging company, released an x-ray pin-up calendar in June. Each month a woman is posed provocatively, but the only thing visible is skeletal structure and high heels. Truly revealing, but not very sexy.

As Carr-Gomm notes, it seems impossible to believe that back in 1945, the BBC’s guide for comedy writers warned against using the word “naked” as a punchline. Today this prudishness is history. At the very least, it allowed humorist David Sedaris to joke about spending a week at nudist trailer park in his 1997 essay collection Naked. “I’ve noticed that when forced to go into town, the costumed nudists appear ornery and uncomfortable, like cats stuffed into little outfits for the sake of a wacky photograph,” he writes. “They claw at their buttons and zippers, their eyes wild and desperate.”

Which is to say that not every nudist has a political agenda. The Baring Witness women might want peace through nudity, but many others go naked only for peace of mind.


(Tstar link).

Friday, August 06, 2010

Buster Keaton + Digital Antiquing + Isaiah Mustafa = Trend Piece

The transformations of that Old Spice dude are the real deal
The rousing success of those Old Spice commercials confirms our innate distrust of digital manipulation
Toronto Star | July 30, 2010 | Ryan Bigge

In a delightful collision between creaking analogue and shiny digital, Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill Jr. was recently released in Blu-ray format. If this silent comedy from 1928 sounds unfamiliar (or worse, irrelevant), I’m confident that everyone is familiar with at least five seconds of it. Near the end of the film, as Keaton is buffeted by a wind storm, he manages to pause in front of a two-storey house. A moment later, the façade tilts forward and topples, with Keaton spared only because an open window frame corresponds with the spot he’s standing in.

According to the documentary A Hard Act to Follow, the stunt involved 1,000 pounds of wood crashing down around Keaton, making it the ne plus ultra of cinematic verisimilitude. More 80 years later, technology has now allowed us to move so far away from the actual that summer filmgoers willingly embraced the absolute fakeness of a CGI tank (attached to three CGI parachutes) battling two CGI planes in The A-Team.

The good news for those with “reality hunger,” as author David Shields dubbed it in a recent book, is that the backlash has arrived — although, in typically post-modern fashion, it’s a complicated form of revolt. Consumed columnist Rob Walker recently wrote about various options for “digitally antiquing” that add a layer of imperfection to digital sound, film and photographs. As Walker notes, “The unifying theme is the link between the flawed and the interesting. A boringly perfect digital picture of a flower makes no impression. But an equally boring one marred by (digitally recreated) light leaks, exposure mistakes and focus inconsistencies presses the aesthetic button that suggests deeper meaning.”

Walker is not the only person to locate our fatigue with binary manipulation, or at the very least its unyielding precision. In June, anthropologist Grant McCracken wrote about low fidelity culture on his blog “In a world of post-mechanical perfection, we love the actual, the manual and the mechanical. It grounds us.” The desire for a touch of humanizing imperfection helps explain the otherwise impossible-to-articulate charm of, which is the famous search engine, but, you know, slightly crooked.

Without the excess of digital effects over the last decade, it’s doubtful we’d have much nostalgia for the way things once looked and sounded. The successful reboot of the James Bond franchise courtesy of Casino Royale and A Quantum of Solace was due in large part to the fact that these films avoided the garish CGI of 2002’s Die Another Die. That film, if you recall, featured Timothy Dalton glacier surfing through a computer-rendered backdrop so horrid that even Max Headroom called it cheesy. Casino Royale, meanwhile, contains a mesmerizing 10-minute sequence featuring Daniel Craig chasing a bad guy through a construction site. You can’t get much more lo-fi than that. (As if to solidify his commitment to realism, Craig accidentally sliced the tip off one of his fingers during the filming of Quantum).

The death of manipulation leads inevitably to the recent Old Spice commercials. Despite a slick social media strategy and a smart viral campaign, the television ads pay homage to the decidedly unmodern, over-elaborate contraptions of Rube Goldberg. During a recent appearance on Attack of the Show, ex-NFL wide receiver Isaiah Mustafa explained the secrets behind his second TV commercial for Old Spice (a.k.a. “swan dive”). The commercial was done in one take (not unlike many OK Go videos, another example of contemporary Rube Goldberg-ism) and necessitated a hidden wire and harness. (Buster Keaton would not be amused.) However, Mustafa refused to explain how the final trick (which involved donning a pair of jeans in a hot tub moments before it collapsed) was accomplished.

This was refreshing, because for the first time in a long time, the answer to the question — How Did They Do That? — wasn’t CGI. Instead, it was creative ingenuity applied against the constraints of the physical realm. This makes the line “I’m on a horse” (from the first Old Spice commercial) not only a punch line, but a reminder that Mustafa is really, actually, sitting on a living, breathing horse.

The return of the real has arrived just in time. In a July 12 interview with German photographer Julian Faulhaber for The Morning News, Nozlee Samadzadeh noted that Faulhaber’s images of parking garages and supermarkets under construction look unreal. “What does it mean to say that reality looks Photoshopped?” asks Samadzadeh.

It means it’s time to make Photoshop look more like reality.

(Tstar link).

Taryn Simon Essay Reprint: Photographs That Make the Invisible Visible

Taryn Simon's photographs of contraband were featured last week in the New York Times Magazine, giving me the perfect excuse to reprint an essay I wrote about her book An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar for the Toronto Star.

Taryn Simon is a photographer with the instincts of a journalist who strives to make the invisible visible
Ryan Bigge | Toronto Star | September 30, 2007

In March of 2007 I went on a long-weekend art crawl in New York, organized by Ryerson's School of Image Arts. Partway through my cultural bender, on the fifth floor of the Whitney, I discovered an easy-to-overlook mezzanine, analogous to floor 7 1/2 in Being John Malkovich. There, inside a small, windowless gallery, was a series of photographs by Taryn Simon entitled An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar.

The bunker-like atmosphere was a perfect compliment to the surreptitious nature of the subject matter, which included a huge pallet of uncut $100 bills from the U.S. Treasury, and the locker room in the Plum Island Animal Disease Center in Long Island.

The image seen here was also part of the exhibit, and is included in Simon's new book of the same name. At first glance, the drab, flesh-coloured walls and harsh neon lighting of this hallway are banal, even repellent, the sort of tableau that should have remained hidden. The only nice thing to say is that the bland walls make the zing and pop of Thomas Downing's two paintings that much more dramatic. (Downing was a member of an influential 1960s movement of painters known as the Washington Colour School.)

But there is obviously more going on here, or this would be a picture with only 250 words. What you can't see is the accompanying caption, which explains that this is part of the original headquarters building of the CIA, located in Langley, Va. It turns out that spooks like art.

Simon points out in her caption that the CIA invested heavily in cultural diplomacy during the Cold War, including actively promoting abstract expressionism. As Simon writes, "It is speculated that some of the CIA's involvement in the arts was designed to counter Soviet Communism by helping to popularize what it considered pro-American thought and aesthetic sensibilities."

Good teachers are said to make the invisible visible. That is, they find ways of converting abstract concepts into concrete examples so that the light bulb in our head switches on. Simon also makes the invisible visible, but in a more literal manner.

Other images from Hidden include a hibernating black bear, a flask of live HIV, the headquarters of the KKK, a cage on death row, a jury simulation room, and a contraband table at JFK airport filled with 48 hours worth of confiscated foodstuff (including, but not limited to, African cane rats and jackfruit seeds).

Like the mezzanine gallery in the Whitney, the cover of Hidden reinforces the theme of secrecy. Made to resemble a bound Ph.D. dissertation, the book features its title stamped with thin, gold-foil lettering, and the plain grey and black cloth cover offers no hints as to the images sequestered inside.

Although the locations and items in Simon's book are furtive and clandestine, her style of documentation is anything but. As Salman Rushdie writes in the book's introduction, "Simon's is not the customary aesthetic of reportage - the shaky hand-held camera, the grainy monochrome film of the 'real.'"

Instead, her images are "suffused with light, captured with a bright, hyper-realist, high-definition clarity that gives a kind of star status to these hidden worlds." Her captions, meanwhile, are detached, dry journalese. Still, Simon is not a dour tour guide. Her book includes some visual puns, like a Braille edition of Playboy, the only version of the magazine that finally makes true the claim "I only read it for the articles."

At the same time, Simon is not afraid to visit uncomfortable places, such as the University of Tennessee's Forensic Anthropology Research Facility, a 6.5-hectare plot filled with 75 dead bodies (legally obtained) that are used to determine decomposition patterns.

As this hallway photograph would suggest, the images in Hidden require a two-part viewing process. An initial impression is formed through viewing the image, followed by a reappraisal after reading the caption. Unlike many artists, Simon tends to generate shock and surprise through textual revelations rather than through her subject matter. Even the Forensic Anthropology photograph is not lurid or true-crime but almost painterly in composition, taken from a discrete distance, and concealing as much as it shows.

It is only after the viewer has digested both image and caption that the formal aspects of the photograph can be appreciated. Simon's work demonstrates that the 1,000 words contained inside a photograph sometimes require an equal number of explanatory words before the image can make its content seen and heard.

While Simon captures her targets from the viewpoint of an artist, the project required her to think like an investigative journalist. Simon worked methodically to gain access over the four years the project required, with some shoots requiring a year of negotiation. As Rushdie writes, "Her powers of persuasion are at least the equal of her camera skills." Thanks to her patience, we have been granted a backstage pass into alternate worlds, infrastructures and subcultures, all of which were selected by Simon at random.

Rushdie believes that these people, places and things constitute a "phantom world," and professes a mixture of envy and gratitude for being allowed to glimpse them. Given the power and importance of this phantom world, Rushdie calls into question the supremacy of the visible world. Perhaps the real arc of our lives is being plotted in the art-lined corridors of the CIA, rather than in legislatures, town halls and boardrooms.

"Democracy needs visibility, accountability, light," Rushdie argues. "It is in the unseen darkness that unsavoury things huddle and grow.” Hidden and unfamiliar, our collective secrets, like photographs, can only be exposed through the judicious application of light.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Gentrification! in Kensington Market

The Domestication of Gentrification
A Toronto-based art collective has developed Gentrification: The Game!, a wild mix of live-action Monopoly and performance art.
Toronto Star | July 11, 2010 | Ryan Bigge

In the past 10 years, the mechanics of gentrification have become so predictable and codified that the once-messy process of urban renewal is now as tidy and rule-based as a game of Risk or Mouse Trap.

Which helps explain why the Toronto-based artist collective Atmosphere Industries ( debuted Gentrification: The Game! at the Come Out & Play Festival in Brooklyn, N.Y., last month.

The game, created by Internet researcher Kate Raynes-Goldie, game enthusiast David Fono, architect Alex Raynes-Goldie and educational technologist Luke Walker, pits teams of “developers” against “locals” in a competition designed to contrast corporate and community-based approaches to urban development.

Fono describes the game as a mixture of live-action Monopoly and performance art, with Kate Raynes-Goldie amending that tagline to include “random acts of kindness plus public space hacking.”

But Fono has an even simpler explanation: “We’re interested in hipsters. That’s it in a nutshell.”

“Specifically how they think,” adds Walker, laughing.

During the game, participating hipsters “purchase” properties by photographing them. These businesses are then “improved” through various tactics including “Slightly Creepy But Wise Neighbourhood Guy Gives Impassioned, Poetic Speech” (that would be a “locals” trick) or “Hired Goons” (that would be a “developer” trick).

Anyone wandering through Park Slope on the afternoon of June 5 would have seen 30 Brooklynites scrambling to hand out flowers and organize spontaneous parades (with banners that read “Happy Neighbour Day!”)

Gentrification is part of a larger trend in location-based entertainment that has been variously described as interactive theatre, transmedia and alternate reality/locative/pervasive gaming. But whatever label Gentrification is given, it’s a winner, receiving Best Use of Technology and Best in Fest at the recent Come Out & Play Festival. These accolades helped convince the Hide and Seek Festival to invite Atmosphere Industries to replay the game in London’s South Bank neighbourhood today.

That the game has been successfully exported to other countries is proof not only of the universal nature of gentrification, but the fact that Gentrification’s gameplay can be absorbed quickly and is geographically flexible. And it turns out that the most nerve-racking aspect of organizing the game is not finding participants but trying to cross the U.S. border with a bag full of bells, noisemakers and party hats, along with a dozen protest signs with slogans like “Down With Frowns.”

Now the four are hoping that Toronto will serve as the next successful location for Gentrification, which will take place on July 25 as part of Pedestrian Sundays in Kensington Market.

While the group beta-tested Gentrification in Kensington Market in April of this year, the July event will mark its official Canadian debut. And just to be clear, Atmosphere Industries is not trying to scrub Kensington clean of its gritty, ramshackle charm. “We like it the way it is,” says Kate Raynes-Goldie. “We don’t want there to be a Starbucks there.”

But Fono acknowledges that the future of Kensington is precarious, since “gentrification is always a looming spectre.” That said, the group admits that Gentrification is designed to be fun, not preachy. “We didn’t really take a stance on whether gentrification is good or bad,” says Alex Raynes-Goldie. “We were pretty snarky toward both sides.”

The four are also realistic enough to acknowledge that a single game isn’t going to change the world. But convincing the public to make better use of their public spaces, and pushing people out of their comfort zones through games like Gentrification, can be good for both the city and the soul.

Or, as Fono puts it, “The larger philosophy behind these sorts of games is turning the everyday world into a playground and an adventure.”

(Photo courtesy Kate Raynes-Goldie)

(Tstar link).

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Andre Alexis Hugs And Kisses Continue

Paul Wells reports from the literary warzone with an entry entitled:

The Smoking Pile of Rubble Where André Alexis Used to Be

It's pretty self-explanatory.

Girl Crazy Reviewed By Non-Crazy Woman

I concede that Justin has real feelings for Jenna, but ultimately he can't let her go — not because he loves her, but because for a self-identified shrimp like himself she's an intoxicating affirmation of his worth. She's an object, property. The real question isn't whether the book is sexist, though, but if it is aware of its own sexism.


Girl Crazy does showcase the contrast between Justin's ex (an educated and sexually conservative middle-class woman) and Jenna (a drug-addled, undereducated and marginalized sex worker). However, the novel does nothing with this contrast other than to condemn the former's prudishness and support the sexual openness of the latter.


Although my immediate instinct is that Jenna is a female chauvinist (she confuses sexual power with real power), still the fact remains that there are plenty of real-life Jennas who are happy to be Jennas. I'm more concerned about the Justins of the world. And I'm most of all concerned that Smith takes the time to point out the "wrong" types of women, yet doesn't truly commit to throwing relief on the less than savory actions of his male characters.

Nice work by Bronwyn Kienapple for eye weekly's bookclub.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Toronto Life Mocks "Over-Aspirational Swagger"

Ridiculously over-aspirational swagger. This thing has reviews of the Audi R8 V10 (starting at $141,000) and the Porsche 911 Turbo Cabriolet (approximately $200,000). The Porsche can go from 0 to 100 in 3.4 seconds, though presumably—hopefully—not on King Street.

That's from the Toronto Life blog, which today mocks Kingwest magazine for being too much like, well ... at the risk of quoting myself, here are some excerpts from the November 2008 issue of Toronto Life on how to act rich:
Toronto Life: For short-term auto jollies, head to ASG Exotic and Luxury car rentals, where rocket-ready six-speed Porsche 911 Carreras ($550) await open roads. For longer-term indulgences, The Private Collection allows for fractional ownership at an annual cost of $31,000, plus $5,000 initiation fee. That nabs 40 to 60 driving days, depending on dates and models; rides include a 007-worthy Aston Martin DB9 and a Lamborghini Gallardo— a car that begs for endless laps of Yorkville, subtly broadcasting “I’m a human penis!” to the world.


Toronto Life: Canoe—140 seats, regional Canadian cuisine, dazzling 54th-floor views and similarly lofty menu prices—can be had for a mere $14,000 minimum tab on Saturday (Sunday is half-price, $7,000; a private sommelier is extra). While the elegant, modern space isn’t exactly shabby, guests often customize it: for a wedding, antique bird cages were filled with cupcakes; another affair featured million-dollar diamond displays and accompanying armed guards. Go-for-broke guests even bring in their own entertainment, including Celtic dancers and Chinese dragon dancers.


Toronto Life: Marco Enterprises co-founders Deborah Zwicker and Marlee Novak have been in the luxury property management biz for 10 years and manage more than 80 ogle-worthy mansions across the city, stocked with such Entourage essentials as indoor pools, tennis courts and private movie theatres. Clients tend toward the famous and fabulous (Bono, Hilary Swank and John Travolta have stayed in furnished homes on such stylish streets as the Bridle Path, Roxborough and Hazelton), but a Hollywood pedigree is not required—just an ability to afford the $10,000 to $50,000 monthly payments. One month minimum rental. 416-410-4123

I suppose if your "over-aspirational swagger" refers to rental items, then you're okay. But if you want to buy those items, then look out, because then you're a wealthy d-bag.

The Warhol Gang Considered

I just finished reading The Warhol Gang by Peter Darbyshire. I reviewed his novel Please for the Toronto Star a bunch of years ago. Since I liked his book, I eventually decided to email him, and we are now friends. So my opinions about The Warhol Gang might be somewhat compromised. That said, I really liked his new novel.

Some of Darbyshire's literary influences are quite obvious -- Palahniuk's Fight Club, the totalitarian consumer absurdity of George Saunders. There is also an intro/conclusion that echoes The Pornographer's Poem by Michael Turner. But what's curious is that this didn't detract from the novel. I tried to imagine how I might review his book if I didn't know him (obviously an impossible thought exercise), and I suspect that beyond mentioning the fact that his influences are less-than-hidden, I would have gone on to argue that Darbyshire is able to spin something unique from the echoes of others.

And that is way more difficult than it sounds. I've read a lot of books, both fiction and non-fiction, that hover around the same set of issues relating to consumer culture and advertising, and the results are uniformly disappointing, if not awful. (Sorry, I'm not going to name names). Darbyshire is not the first, nor will he be the last person to discuss male consumer alienation, but he has made it new, made it fresh, which is really quite impressive.

There are two other things about his novel I'd like to praise. One is that it was a pleasure to read, which is rare. I read it quickly, and was drawn back to it, rather than having to read it out of duty or obligation.

The second is that Darbyshire has a very minimalist, deadpan style and tone that he is in complete command and control of. I can't remember an instance in the novel where anything -- be it dialogue or description or plot -- seemed discordant or out of place. And that is even tougher than making something new out of male consumer rage. Every word is there for a reason, everything thing is in the right place.

To celebrate the greatness of The Warhol Gang, I'm reprinting my review of Please. Enjoy.

Could we have some more?
Debut novel puts story ahead of pop
We all search for a reason to love
From the Toronto Star, May 11, 2003

Please by Peter Darbyshire, Raincoast, 200 pages, $21.95

Back in 1999, the journal Canadian Fiction published an anthology titled Pop Goes The Story, which included "Still" by Peter Darbyshire. The story mixed a live police manhunt on CNN with a conversation between a nameless narrator and his parents, and featured the following volley of dialogue:
"Any new ladies in your life?" my mother suddenly asked.

"I had a wrong number the other day," I said. "We talked for a while."

"Still" is now a chapter in the Darbyshire novel Please, but the second line now reads, "'No,' I said. 'There's no one.'" Even though the joke was funny, I'm glad it's gone; it was a distracting tangent, appropriate in a short story, not a novel. Its omission proves Darbyshire is willing to sacrifice laughs to ensure strong narrative flow. Not that Please isn't funny -- on the contrary, it's filled with dark, absurd and wry moments of verbal sparring. When the narrator and his girlfriend find themselves working at the same hospital, they soon pretend that a baby behind the maternity ward glass is their own:

"That's not our baby," I said.

"It doesn't know that," Rachel said. "It's still young enough that maybe it'll imprint on us."

"It's not a chicken," I said.

"Wave to baby," she said, "or it'll think you don't care."

Finding something or someone to care about is the main theme of Please. Like Jonathan Goldstein's excellent but overlooked 2001 novel Lenny Bruce Is Dead, Darbyshire is comfortable with moments tender and callous, often abrupt. Both novels omit events and juggle with chronology, forcing the reader to fill in the gaps.

Disorientated by sadness, the narrator of Please still manages to survey scenes like a detective: "The air inside the Happy Harbour was cool and wet. There were five or six men sitting around a table in the middle of the room, with maybe two dozen beer bottles occupying the spaces between them. I didn't recognize any of the labels on the bottles."

Later, the narrator stumbles into the employ of a small-time crook: "We drove to a subdivision in the north end of the city, a quiet and clean place that looked as if it had been abandoned and sterilized at daybreak."

Please claims to be a novel yet resembles a linked story collection. Regardless of labels, the book is a cohesive whole, with the looser format complementing the style, voice and aims. Darbyshire doesn't introduce the marriage and its dissolution until half-way through Please, even though the novel begins with the narrator dealing with divorced life. By the time the relationship failure is detailed, the reader has been shown the pain and confusion wrought.

Please has the texture of a recurring slow-motion underwater dreamworld. Surreal situations are embraced, not repelled. The narrator drifts along and around various situations without haste, since he sees no reason to generate momentum in a life that lacks direction or purpose. Some of the Please episodes -- a more appropriate description than "chapter" -- involve Mormon thieves, a movie director who accidentally kills a man he mistakes for John Cusack and a deadbeat roommate who steals tickets to a Tom Waits concert. The situations and style are modern and urban but Darbyshire doesn't strain to be hip, since love lost is always painful.

In searching for what comes next, the narrator eventually identifies his inaction as the main obstacle. To escape emotional inertia he must react against his environment to generate momentum, either positive or negative. Near the end of the novel, after the narrator has avoided (or tried to avoid) numerous Good Samaritan situations, he notices the house beside him engulfed in flames. "This is our chance to do something right," he says to his friends, instead of "standing around doing nothing again."

Please has modest ambitions, and succeeds admirably. Only one chapter, "Jesus Cured My Herpes," falters, as Darbyshire tries to cram too much into a small space, straining to link planespotting, a faith healer and cows escaping a transport truck. Otherwise, this is an accomplished debut.

"Still" was included in the Pop Goes The Story anthology for a good reason. Please references pop culture, but, thankfully, doesn't rely on it. Clouds are described as moving as if in a "time-lapse movie"; a Jamaican roommate wants "a happy marriage, like on television"; the call centre that temporarily employs the narrator "was the kind of place you see on television." What separates Darbyshire from many of the other writers included in the Pop anthology is his ability to always privilege the story over the pop. Please is the screenplay for a sitcom-length movie that need never be filmed.

Zachariah Wells Says it Much Better Than I Could

Zachariah Wells, over at CNQ, responds to the Andre Alexis essay that was recently published in the Walrus. I think it adroitly identifies some of the key things that Alexis overlooked in his argument, including:
With Ryan Bigge, the case is weaker yet—no better than speculation, really. The only piece of evidence I know of linking Bigge to Metcalf is Bigge’s publication of a review of a book by Andrew Pyper in Canadian Notes & Queries. While Metcalf has long been on CNQ’s masthead, he is not the reviews editor. That job, at the time of Bigge’s review, belonged to Michael Darling, who also once commissioned me to write a review for CNQ. I subsequently joined CNQ as an editor and replaced Michael as reviews editor when he stepped down in 2006. I have served in that capacity for approximately four years, during which time I have had very limited exchanges with John Metcalf, who has never once told me what to have reviewed, nor whom I should hire to write for CNQ. I therefore think it entirely probable that Ryan Bigge has never had so much as a conversation with Metcalf, never mind the paranoid notion that Bigge is some kind of Metcalf acolyte.

If the Metcalf, Marchand, Starnino or Bigge of your essay appeared in a novel, say, the author of that novel might justly be charged with creating cardboard characters. It strikes me as a singular failure of imagination on your part—a failure made wilful by the suppression of facts—that you can only see, or choose only to portray, one dimension of these rather complex individuals. You speak of “the shallow, self-aggrandizing rhetoric that now passes for criticism.” Do you really want to go there? In this essay? Do you really believe that all Carmine Starnino does is insult poets? Or was this another rhetorical flourish? You leave an informed reader in the position of having to decide if you’re being ignorant or dishonest and neither option, needless to say, redounds to your credit. Is Bigge’s review of Leah McLaren’s book actually representative of his normal reviewing approach? Is this someone who reviews for the sole purpose of avenging hurts suffered? Is he allowed no mulligans on your course?

I believe I deserve a mulligan. I've certainly earned it at this point.