Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Profile of Jason Kieffer, author of The Rabble of Downtown Toronto

Jason Kieffer's comic book about Toronto's infamous street characters sparks both outrage and defense
Spacing | Summer 2010 | Ryan Bigge

My walking tour of Cabbagetown, courtesy of cartoonist Jason Kieffer, begins at Jet Fuel on Parliament Street. We head west on Carleton, past Chew Chew’s Diner, where 27-year-old Kieffer often meets with fellow scribbler Dave Lapp. At Sherbourne we meander through Allan Gardens. Kieffer points out a park bench where he likes to sit and watch the sideshow of drug addicts, prostitutes and vagrants that provided the inspiration and source material for his recently self-published book, The Rabble of Downtown Toronto.

Despite spending half an hour in prime rabble territory, we fail to spot Crazy Wire Lady, Alex the Joke Teller, Retarded Crackhead or any of the other 37 people included in Kieffer’s handbook of annotated illustrations. And while a street person-free afternoon in Cabbagetown might sound like a good thing to some people, it reflects how the redevelopment of Regent Park is pushing marginalized residents out of the neighbourhood.

“Money is moving in,” explains Kieffer, a shy, thoughtful person who majored in philosophy and art at U of T. “And I don’t like it.” He mentions how a bike cop recently forced a street person to stop standing near a newly opened Starbucks. “The more people with money move in, the more people like that will be displaced.”

In this way, Rabble serves as a census for an often invisible demographic. Kieffer spent two years researching and illustrating the book, which combines clean, bold, black and white line drawings with assorted notes and commentary. (The entry for Norman, a male prostitute, notes that he is “usually picked up by guys driving pick-up trucks” and was “once spotted wearing only a towel.”)

Although not overtly political, Rabble is designed to draw attention to society’s outcasts. “I’m taking all this difficult stuff and forcing it into the reader’s face,” Kieffer explains. But given some politically incorrect territory (i.e. Retarded Crackhead), and seemingly ambiguous attitude toward his subject matter, it may be no surprise that his small, self-published book has generated big controversy, including a rowdy Q&A session during Kieffer’s book launch in April.

“Comics have long had the problem of being misunderstood,” explains Peter Birkemoe, owner of comics store The Beguiling. “And some people get really upset when a comic doesn’t meet their expectations or behave in the way it should.” The reception of The Incident Report, a recent novel by Martha Baillie, reinforces how Kieffer’s medium sent the wrong message. Consisting of semi-humourous memos about Budgie Man, Sheep Woman, Scruffy Chessman and other marginalized patrons of the Allan Gardens Public Library, Baillie’s appropriation can be considered equally controversial, but instead of earning outrage, her novel was long-listed for last year’s Giller Prize.

Still, Kieffer should not be entirely surprised that people have misinterpreted the intent of his book. Back in 2007, he posted two early profiles on BlogTO (Crazy Hand Lady and Rage Man). After a vigorous comment board pile-on among the digital rabble (e.g. “Yeah, there’s nothing more hilarious than mocking someone poor and mentally challenged”) Kieffer was asked to stop contributing to BlogTO.

“I like letting the work speak for itself,” Kieffer says. He carefully considered including an introduction to Rabble that would have explained his good intentions but eventually decided against it. “I’m happy with that decision, even though it leaves me open to attack, because people can assume what they want about me.”

Which is exactly what happened in March 2010 when Joe Fiorito wrote an outraged Toronto Star column about the book. Kieffer was most disappointed by the fact that Fiorito didn’t bother to contact him.

Too bad. Fiorito would have discovered, as I did, that Kieffer is a gentle soul, not a sniggering Vice magazine hipster. His biggest shortcoming, at least according to Birkemoe, is that Kieffer “is lacking in his ability to advocate for his work, which is true of many artists.” During our interview at Jet Fuel, Kieffer shifted uncomfortably and stared at the floor as he tried to explain why his work gets misinterpreted. “Some people think 'comic book equals funny',” he says. “But when I read through the profiles I don’t find them funny.”

Kieffer’s interest in the marginalized is both genuine and ongoing. His next book will be about street performer Zanta, a shirtless Santa who until recently roamed Toronto doing pushups. Eventually banned from significant chunks of the downtown core, Zanta now lives in the suburbs with a family member. “I’m doing the book because Zanta is a prime example of the way the city responds to people who don’t fit in or operate outside the norm,” says Kieffer.

Having lived in Cabbagetown his whole life, Kieffer has modified the dictum “write what you know” into “draw what’s around you.” Our tour concludes at Gerrard and Parliament in a tiny, triangular park. “This is the view from my apartment,” Kieffer says. He points across the street toward a third-floor window above a discount fashion store. At night, Kieffer explains, the park becomes a stage for addicts, prostitutes, and various drug disputes.

Rabble asks readers to determine for themselves which is worse: diligently recording the eccentricities of the less fortunate or ignoring them outright. Kieffer recalls being at a bus stop recently when an angry, disheveled woman tried to talk with commuters who refused her eye contact. “That’s crazy to me,” Kieffer says, neatly inverting the traditional definition of mental fitness. “That’s really horrible behaviour, super anti-social. I don’t know how you can treat other people like that.”


Little Portugal Is Quiet, But For How Long

Portugal lost today in their world cup match against Spain. Which should mean no more insane honking jags along Dundas Street.

Except for the fact that the Portuguese are blessed with a special, adaptive genetic mutation that allows them to cheer passionately for Brazil if their team is eliminated from the tournament. The best way I can describe the science behind this is through a sound clip from Jurassic Park:

The New Context

Very late to this. Five months late, actually, but this is a great quote about how the Internet distorts past and present:

Regardless of whether Johnson’s view of Vlaams Belang is correct, it is notable that the party is defined for him entirely by the trail it has left on the Internet. This isn’t necessarily unfair — a speech, say, given by Dewinter isn’t any more or less valuable as evidence of his political positions depending on whether you read it (or watch it) on a screen or listen to it in a crowd — but it does have a certain flattening effect in terms of time: that hypothetical speech exists on the Internet in exactly the same way whether it was delivered in 2007 or 1997. The speaker will never put it behind him. (Just as Johnson, despite his very reasonable contention that he later changed his mind, will never be allowed to consign to the past a blog post he wrote in 2004 criticizing that judicial condemnation of Vlaams Belang as “a victory for European Islamic supremacist groups.”) It may be difficult to travel to Belgium and build the case that Filip Dewinter is not just a hateful character but an actual Nazi (and thus that those who can be linked to him are Nazi sympathizers), but sitting at your keyboard, there is no trick to it at all. Not only can the past never really be erased; it co-exists, in cyberspace, with the present, and an important type of context is destroyed. This is one reason that intellectual inflexibility has become such a hallmark of modern political discourse, and why, so often, no distinction is recognized between hypocrisy and changing your mind.


Monday, June 28, 2010

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

A Niche Culture Searching For A Song of the Summer

Note: This is a reprint of a Toronto Star article about the impossibility of a big summer song in the age of the closet hipster.

Death of the monoculture
The monoculture – the force that united mass audiences around a TV or fostered a clear-cut consensus on the 'song of the summer' – is dead. In another guise, however, its flattening effect on non-Western culture is, sadly, thriving
Toronto Star | Jul 20, 2008 | Ryan Bigge

The season of popcorn blockbusters, beach reads, summer girls, and boys of summer has arrived. And the only thing missing is the (un)official song of the summer – a ubiquitous pop smash that demands we shake our hands in the air and sing along as though we had not a care in the world.

In 2007 that song was "Umbrella," by Rihanna; the year before "Crazy" by Gnarls Barkley. Even Canadians are capable of making a sun song: In 1999, the rather apropos "Steal My Sunshine" by Toronto pop/hip-hop group Len brightened our June, July and August.

So where is this year's hot, hazy hit? Although New York magazine last month handicapped eight potential summer songs (including Lil Wayne's "Lollipop," Leona Lewis's "Bleeding Love" and Coldplay's "Violet Hill"), a leading contender has yet to emerge. And at this point, we're starting to run out of summer.

If you wish to play the game of blame, the death of the monoculture has become a popular choice in recent years. The infrastructure that made the winner-take-all monoculture possible during the mid-to-late 20th century – the radio-MTV-record store monopoly of music distribution – is gone forever, thanks to the Internet.

We now have the "long tail," Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson's belief that there are huge profits to be made from the extensive back catalogues of movies, music and books. Add to that legal (and illegal) downloads of TV, music and movies, and the cultural jambalaya of YouTube and MySpace.

While consumers enjoy the binary buffet, critics – those in charge of constructing contexts and explanations for what we like – are less enthralled. "When I grew up, there was a monoculture," Robert Christgau, the dean of American music criticism, noted in an October 2006 interview on Popmatters.com. "Everybody listened to the same music on the radio. I miss monoculture. I think it's good for people to have a shared experience."

As Toronto music journalist and author Carl Wilson recently noted on his blog Zoilus.com, Christgau repeated his gentle yearning for the monoculture during a Q&A session following his talk on indie-rock, neofascism (!) and John Mayer's "Waiting on the World to Change" (?!?) at the annual Experience Music Project (EMP) Pop Conference in Seattle this April.

For cognitive musicologist David Huron, however, the monoculture is very much alive – albeit embedded in the songs themselves. In a recent article in Nature magazine, Huron argues that, as a result of globalization, the scales, melodies and harmonies used by musicians throughout the world are becoming more and more Western, even if the style and genres of world music remain diverse and localized.

We hear music through Western ears – which for Huron means, for example, that we "expect large changes of pitch in a melody to be followed by a change of direction" – but what we take for granted as musically natural might not be universal. With the rapid spread of North American culture across the world, however, alternative musical approaches are being muted through hybridity.

So as the cultural infrastructure is changing rapidly, the sonic landscape degenerates. Perhaps the reason we lack a summer song is that the eight songs chosen by New York magazine are too structurally similar to each other to meaningfully distinguish themselves as an uber-hit.

In his new book, Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are, Rob Walker, who writes the popular Consumed column for The New York Times Magazine, describes this as the Pretty Good Problem, in which consumer goods such as kitchen ranges are now of such similar quality, we're forced to distinguish between major appliances on the most minor of differences.

The death of monoculture also reduces the necessity of having to write a genre-crossing hit song in the first place. Writing late last month on her blog Asymmetrical Information, Megan McArdle argued, "The rise of cheap distribution means there are more genres and sub-genres than there used to be – and also that acts don't need to broaden their appeal so much as they once did. If you don't need to get on a top 40 station to make it big, you will lose the elements you once might have added to attract that audience."

There might be more genres, but from an engineering standpoint, all those songs are starting to sound the same. "On most modern CDs the music is squashed into the top 5 dB of a medium that has over 90 dB of range," writes Nick Southall in a 2006 stylusmagazine.com article called "Imperfect Sound Forever." The result: "Not only are the volume differentials flattened when you compress music, but bass and treble frequencies are pressed into the midrange and the space surrounding instruments is lost, making them less easy to separate when you listen."

Putting things in plain speak, Southall concludes that, "By the time you've listened closely (or tried to) to a whole album that's heavily compressed, you end up feeling like Alex at the end of A Clockwork Orange – battered, fatigued by, and disgusted with the music you love."

This aural assault, known as the "loudness war," began in earnest with Oasis's 1995 album (What's the Story) Morning Glory?, which averaged -8dB Root Mean Square volume (RMS), as compared with the 1987 Guns N' Roses album Appetite for Destruction, which was -15dB RMS (and was considered plenty loud at the time). The 2005 average volume for a rock record, according to Southall, is -9dB RMS. Negative numbers and weird acronym aside, today's albums are really loud – and identically so.

Cultural critic and professional irritant Chuck Klosterman has argued that the monoculture eradicates regional differences, but at the same time, "the acceleration and splintering of media destroys the potential for cultural universals," he said in a 2006 interview with Popmatters.com. "There are fewer and fewer specific cultural touchstones that every member of a certain generation shares simultaneously (Johnny Carson, Led Zeppelin, Jaws, etc.). As a result, people end up feeling alienated by their own normalcy; they feel lonely within a crowd. And this is a huge cultural problem."

Or, as a headline on a mock 2004 article in The Onion put it: "Majority Of Americans Out Of Touch With Mainstream."

Some would argue that critics such as Klosterman and Christgau have an ulterior motive in their left-handed compliments about the way things used to be – their relevance and livelihood diminishes as the monoculture dwindles. Not that Christgau is likely to over romanticize the past. As noted in the comments section of Wilson's blog, Christgau amended his statement at EMP Pop Conference by adding, "I understand that we can't have it (the monoculture) back and that there are reasons why we shouldn't." So would it really matter if this summer fails to produce a song to call its own? It might even be a blessing, given that past summer songs include "Who Let the Dogs Out?" and "Macarena."

And now, at the risk of making everything even muddier, Anderson's long-tail theory is being aggressively challenged. Anita Elberse's article "Should You Invest in the Long Tail?" in the July-August 2008 Harvard Business Review, examines data from Nielsen VideoScan and Nielsen SoundScan, along with Quickflix (an Australian version of Netflix) and Rhapsody (a subscriber-driven online music database). She argues that the importance of big hits, be they movies, music or books, is increasing over time.

"Although today's hits may no longer reach the sales volumes typical of the pre-piracy era, an ever smaller set of top titles continues to account for a large chunk of the overall demand for music."

For Elberse, the tail is long but flat – we have more choice through Amazon or iTunes, but we are still social animals who prefer to listen to what others are listening to, although heavy consumers of music and movies are more willing to dip into more obscure waters occasionally.

While Elberse and Anderson are already respectfully debating definitions of where the hits end and the tail begins online, it appears that the nichification of culture is not yet complete.

So, to recap thus far: In the near future, we might have to be content with songs of the summer, rather than a lone chart-stomping tyrant. The monoculture is dead, except it's not. The long-tail theory is correct, except when it isn't. And critics miss the monoculture, except not really, but kinda maybe.

Which is to say the monoculture is dead. Long live the monoculture.

What the monoculture sounds like

Skeptics seeking a literal demonstration of the pop-music formula should listen to Greatest Hit, a six-song album by Toronto writer and artist Brian Joseph Davis. On "I'm Every Song," Davis combines 18 Whitney Houston hit ballads into one track. The result is weirdly listenable. brianjosephdavis.com

If Davis's work hints at what the monoculture sounds like, the amalgamations of artist and University of Chicago Assistant Professor Jason Salavon provide a way of visualizing cultural sameness.

In his 2002 series, Every Playboy Centerfold, Salavon uses sophisticated software code to average every Playboy centrefold for various decades. The result is a non-erotic blur of flesh and blue that hints at the standardization of body type. salavon.com

(Toronto Star link).
(The Smart Set link).

Tuesday, June 22, 2010


From the internationally acclaimed author of The Middle Stories and Ticknor comes a bold interrogation into the possibility of a beautiful life. How Should a Person Be? is a novel of many identities: an autobiography of the mind, a postmodern self-help book, and a fictionalized portrait of the artist as a young woman -- of two such artists, in fact.

For reasons multiple and mysterious, Sheila finds herself in a quandary of self-doubt, questioning how a person should be in the world. Inspired by her friend Margaux -- a painter -- and her seemingly untortured ability to live and create, Sheila casts Margaux as material, embarking on a series of recordings in which nothing is too personal, too ugly, or too banal to be turned into art. Along the way, Sheila confronts a cast of painters who are equally blocked in an age in which "the blow job is the ultimate artform." She begins questioning her desire to be Important, her quest to be both a leader and a pupil, and her unwillingness to sacrifice herself.

Searching, uncompromising and yet mordantly funny, How Should a Person Be? is a brilliant portrait of art-making and friendship from the psychic underground of Canada's most fiercely original writer.


Monday, June 21, 2010

Faye Hammill Explains Why Sophistication Used To be Subversive

What is sophistication?
We now think of it as a kind of cultural cool, say Faye Hammill, but the word has never quite lost its early negative associations

Globe and Mail | June 12, 2010 | Ryan Bigge

On the season finale of 30 Rock, Liz Lemon (a.k.a Tiny Fey) joked that “people wear flip flops to church.” You might mourn along with her that sophistication is dead. But it’s not. It’s alive and well and embodied in people like Alan Rickman, Audrey Tautou and Stephen Fry, according to Faye Hammill, a senior lecturer in English at Glasgow’s Strathclyde University. According to Hammill, Fry’s ability to convey worldly wisdom made him the perfect actor to portray Oscar Wilde; “he even played the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland,” she said, “which I think is a very sophisticated caterpillar.”

Hammill is the author of a new book, Sophistication: A Literary and Cultural History. She was seduced by sophistication while working on her previous book Women, Celebrity, and Literary Culture Between the Wars. “I was researching Dorothy Parker and I found out that her first job was at Vogue writing captions for underwear illustrations. And her next job was at Vanity Fair.” She realized that those magazines, along with The New Yorker, were using sophistication as a way to market themselves. She decided to explore “at what point the word changed from being a derogatory term to being something celebratory.”

Originating from the ancient Greek word for wisdom, sophistry soon came to mean something like disingenuous reasoning, and sophistication has never shaken free of its guilty-by-association semantic roots. But unlike hipsterdom or trendiness, sophistication involves smooth, invisible cool -- the ability to intuit dress codes for gala events, bring a superior syrah to a dinner party or talk accurately (or at least convincingly) about contemporary art. Think Tyler Brule, who founded not one but two bibles of global sophistication (Wallpaper* and Monocle magazine) which serve simultaneously to educate and affirm the stylish sensibilities of cosmopolitan urbanites in Zurich, Berlin, Madrid and Toyko.

However, sophistication has evolved considerably from being defined as “adulteration, not genuine” in the 1799 edition of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary to its valorization during the interwar period. Today, as Hammill concludes, sophistication has become too diffuse a concept to be meaningful and is “applied indiscriminately to everything stylish, luxurious, clever or technically complex.”

Still, some core attributes of sophistication have remained fairly consistent. What has really changed is society’s attitudes toward those qualities. As Hammill writes, “Sophistication is often associated with a degree of hedonism, an unshockable attitude in sexual matters, a distrust of bourgeois values … and a focus on the pleasure of the moment.” That description, once fraught with moral and political defiance, could now easily double as a corporate mission statement for the American Apparel clothing chain.

As she explains, the problem with sophistication, at least during the late 18th and early 19th century, was that “the Romantic privileging of expressiveness entailed a rejection of artifice and literary sophistication.” Sophistication became associated with “moral laxity and self-indulgence” and was so strongly distrusted that “unsophistication” became a term of praise. It was not until the 1830s that a modern understanding of sophistication first appeared, involving “taste, elegance, delicacy, leisure, and above all refinement.” Through a close reading of various authors, including Jane Austen (Mansfield Park), Edith Wharton (The Age of Innocence) and Vladimir Nabokov (Lolita), Hammill traces sophistication’s slow and subtle shift from disingenuousness to discrimination.

For Hammill, the most exciting era of sophistication was during the 1920s and 30s, when conflicting definitions were in flux and the mannerisms of the time had much to recommend them. “We think of the Twenties as the last days of the leisure class,” she says, “when people had the time to be really stylish and sit around smoking long cigarettes and making witticisms.” As if to reinforce this, the cover of her book is a photograph of Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence taken from the play Private Lives.

That said, the decadent lifestyle that sophistication upheld, like punk rock, has lost its ability to alarm the bourgeoisie. Women smoking is no longer considered subversive and standards of virtue have dissolved so dramatically that flip flops should be the least of Liz Lemon’s concerns. Hammill believes that sophistication now involves class aspiration and being a discriminating consumer, instead of the ambitious, heady modernism of the 1920s: “I think Vanity Fair in the Jazz Age was encouraging an intellectual openness, rather than simply encouraging people to try new thing that they might need to pay for.”

Although Sophistication focuses on British and America novels and magazines, Hammill, who specializes in Canadian literature at Strathclyde University, hopes to one day examine Canadian-specific responses to sophistication. She points to the launch of Maclean’s and Chatelaine (1911 and 1928 respectively), along with lesser-known Canadian magazines of the era, including Mayfair (a high-society monthly launched in 1927 that once described itself as “Canada's Smartest Magazine”) and Montreal’s Le Revue Moderne.

Hammill would also be inclined to add Ethel Wilson to the pantheon of sophisticates. Wilson was a Vancouver novelist who published Hetty Dorval and The Innocent Traveller during the 1940s.

“Because Ethel Wilson was such a stylist and had a detached ironic attitude, often reviewers and commentators have described her using the word sophistication,” she says. “And I think she’s quite unusual, because that’s not the word that comes up the most often in reviews of other Canadian writers at that time.”

There’s something charmingly incongruous about hearing Hammill list off current Canadian examples of sophistication in her heavy English accent -- she mentions Guy Maddin and Atom Egoyan, along with The Walrus magazine. And, of course, La Belle Province.

“I talk a lot about Frenchness, as in Paris, being associated with sophistication in my book,” notes Hammill. “But you could imagine a Canadian version where Montreal would be at the centre.”

Ryan Bigge’s recently completed debut novel contains the phrase “cigarette swirls of sophistication.”

Technophobes Hate Internet; Deaf People Hate Music

Award-winning Irish writer Colm Toibin firmly believes the novel will remain fundamentally unchanged by the Internet or other high-tech innovations, a realm in which he admits he is nearly illiterate.


Toibin is a technophobe. He writes with a fountain pen on paper and cannot figure out how to send e-mails by phone. An interview with Reuters on Tuesday was delayed as Toibin fumbled with his cell phone, repeatedly failing to answer it.

Take that Steve Jobs! Your iPad is doomed! Doomed I tell you!

Toibin is not alone, of course:

The authors—Theroux and Govier (a last-minute replacement for Richard Bausch)—were much more concerned that the reading experience and their work would be compromised by e-readers. Govier went so far to argue that books shouldn’t even be made available online because the process devalues her work. Authors deserve to be compensated, we won’t argue that, but such resistance to technology is worrisome. Thankfully, Silver and moderator Stossel, provided a more Internet-friendly point of view, pointing out the marketing, publicity and accessibility benefits of putting books online, despite it’s ability to increase piracy.

The biggest theme of the conversation was that reading on an e-reader is a different experience than reading a book. Most of the panelists argued that the experience of reading a physical book is inherently a better experience (a popular argument throughout the industry right now, but, really, it’s a personal preference and not a universal truth), and a more immersive one. This application of personal preference to an entire audience of readers is problematic. Why assume everyone everywhere wants to read everything in the exact same way? Different readers want different kinds of experiences, and publishers should be creating opportunity for consumers to make that choice.

(Toibin link).

(Govier link).

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Fake and Real of Toronto's Upside-Down G20 Mirror

Picture and a thousand words
Toronto aspires to be ‘world class’ but finds it’s annoying, expensive, and dull. Wouldn’t we all rather be playing soccer? Four reflections on the G20 host city, seen through the looking glass
Toronto Star | June 18, 2010 | Ryan Bigge

Vanity Mirror
Mirror, mirror on the security wall, who’s the fairest G20 host city of them all? The answer is probably not Toronto.

At this point, it appears the only people in our city looking forward to the arrival of G20 leaders are anti-globalization protesters.

Which is not to suggest the upcoming summit will be a complete failure. Already it has served to accurately reflect the petty irritation that Torontonians emit toward any inconvenience large or small.

Our city is about to serve as a stage for some of the world’s most powerful politicians, and most of our citizens are casting about for a shepherd’s hook.

Sad to say, but “the personal is political” does not extend to complaining about traffic and parking disruptions. And, in a tidy irony, those most inconvenienced will find it difficult to share their frustration, since cellphone signals will be jammed during portions of the summit. Unlike the puppeteering activists who will coalesce at the barricades to agitate for a better tomorrow, the everyday complainers will allow their rage to turn impotent. As per usual.

Funhouse Mirror
While the reflection in the mirror on this page offers a reasonably accurate representation of the big, curvy ass of the Rogers Centre, the mirror is ultimately a distortion device, reversing whatever is placed before it.

And in relation to recent events, this circle of glass and reflective coating might as well be a rippling funhouse mirror.

True events now sound false: a $57,000 fake lake, trees being removed for security purposes, a ban on kite flying near G20 events, a Toronto-based security fence company called Mammoth Erection (FYI: mammoth as in woolly). Meanwhile, false events now sound true: “Protesters will all dress as zombies, attempt to gnaw police, world leaders” and “80 per cent of G20 security price tag will be used to distribute fluffy kittens to subdue protesters.”

The zombie and kitten theories, courtesy of @jo_words and @rmcw respectively, are two of the many fake G20 rumours now circulating on Twitter thanks to a request from Torontoist’s Andrew Louis editor-in-chief David Topping. Look for them under #G20fakerumours, a hashtag created by @frsrmtthws, who initiated the rumour mill by warning that the CN Tower will be relocated to Brampton during the summit.

Unlike the $57,000 artificial lake (a.k.a. “water feature”) to be built inside Toronto’s Direct Energy Centre, the fake rumours are funny, but that explains only part of their appeal. This humorous hearsay wouldn’t have gained much traction if the actual G20 event wasn’t becoming so unreal.

And while Twitter satire and reversal of expectations might rely on a modern method of digital delivery, its roots can be traced back to the 15th century. Barnard College professor Keith Moxey, in his book The Practice of Theory, discusses how painter Hieronymus Bosch drew inspiration from the margins of illuminated manuscripts and their notion of the world upside-down.

Moxey argues that the artwork along manuscript borders “satirize classes, occupations, and the sexes by inverting the relationship in which they usually stand in society.” Hence, police handing out kittens instead of pepper spray. The world upside-down provided the freedom to imagine revenge, but always with the knowledge that such satire “could take place only in a context in which such questioning did not constitute a real challenge to the status quo.”

Two-Way Mirror
Although this mirror works in only one direction, the meetings of the G20 are held behind two-way mirrors, at least metaphorically. The powerful can see out, while protesters and ordinary citizens can see only themselves.

But as Antonia Zerbisias explained in the Sunday Star’s Insight section last week, our city will also host a variety of alternative summits, and these “open gatherings are counterpoints to the closed-door sessions between the heads of the world’s richest nations, and their financial elite.” It is here, not the G20, where various creative solutions and fresh utopias will be sketched and debated.

And, as it happens, the late Michel Foucault, the philosopher and critical theorist who closely examined the intersection of power, surveillance and politics, had something to say about utopia (and mirrors). In his essay “Of Other Spaces,” Foucault talks about a counterpoint to utopia he calls the heterotopia. Utopia, by its definition, is imaginary — what Foucault calls a “placeless place” — while a heterotopia is “an effectively enacted utopia.”

Foucault suggests that thinking about a mirror can help define heterotopia because “it makes this place that I occupy at the moment when I look at myself in the glass at once absolutely real . . . and absolutely unreal.”

The point of this academic smoke and mirrors? Foucault felt that a heterotopia offered an opportunity to “suspect, neutralize or invert the set of relations that they happen to designate, mirror or reflect.” By combining the real and theoretical, alternate summits can be thought of as heterotopias, an opportunity to turn the world upside down with the hope of properly challenging the status quo.

Mirror of Society
“G20 security forces will be equipped with vuvuzelas,” according to a tweet from @zbussey, offering yet another entry in the fake rumour competition. The real G20 security forces will be equipped with sound cannons, although given the $1 billion security price tag, some serious cost savings could be realized if a bunch of small, colourful plastic horns were utilized instead. They might even be as effective since, as Monocle magazine’s Andrew Mueller noted in a June 15 online column, “the enervating drone of the vuvuzelas” can reach up to 127 decibels.

There are other parallels between the World Cup and the G20, which is why Franklin Foer, back in 2004, published his book How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization. But no matter how hard the G20 might try, meeting economic goals will never be as exciting as scoring one. And so, as we cheer our athletes and jeer our politicians, we make soccer the truest mirror of our city.

(Toronto Star article link).

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Andre Alexis and His Wonderful, Terrific, Marvellous, Brilliant and Thoroughly Engaging Reviews For the Globe and Mail

“In other words, a book section isn’t only about letting people know that such-and-such a work has been published. It’s a place where consideration happens — and the nature of a consideration is important, whatever book or idea sets it in motion. Consideration, for me, isn’t so much a matter of determining the ultimate value of a work, but rather of allowing a community to participate in the evaluation of the work.”
– Andre Alexis, writing in the July/August 2010 issue of The Walrus

“And one is as grateful, in the end, for Vassanji's company as for his wonderful book.”
- Review of Place Within by M. G. Vassanji, 8 November 2008 The Globe and Mail

“It's wonderful.”
- Review of Kant! by Moses Harry Horwitz, 1 April 2009, The Globe and Mail

“Moreover, Fantagraphics has done a wonderful job.”
- Review of Krazy and Ignatz by George Herriman, 1 September 2007, The Globe and Mail

“Though Home is slower than Gilead and not all of its characterizations worked for me, it is still a terrific novel.”
- Review of Home by Marilynne Robinson, 27 September 2008 The Globe and Mail

“I want to add, after saying so many contradictory things myself, that I found the book thoroughly engaging, from one end to the other.”
- Review of Hitch-22 by Christopher Hitchens, 5 June 2010 The Globe and Mail

“In the end, I want to say that this is both a brilliant book and one that is flawed.”
- Review of Glenn Gould by Mark Kingwell, 19 December 2009 The Globe and Mail

“In the end, I feel I'm in the odd position of saying negative things about a book I enjoyed. The thing is, of course, that my love for Ishiguro's previous work, his novels, has (along with my quibbles about his story writing) dampened my feelings for Nocturnes. So, if a friend were to ask me how I liked the book, I'd answer: It's good, but have you read Never Let Me Go? Now that's a great book.”
- Review of Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro, 23 May 2009, The Globe and Mail

“Finally, there's the third section: Affinities. It's simply marvellous.”
- Review of Kant! by Moses Harry Horwitz, 1 April 2009, The Globe and Mail

“In any case, I can't recommend these volumes highly enough.”
- Review of Krazy and Ignatz by George Herriman, 1 September 2007, The Globe and Mail

“It's a good read.”
- Review of The Aeneid as translated by Robert Fagles, 23 December 2006 The Globe and Mail

“The Kindly Ones has been a tremendous success in France, but it has also generated heated and very interesting debate both in France and elsewhere in Europe. I think the novel is good, but the debate is crucial.”
- Review of The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell, 7 March 2009, The Globe and Mail

“(The first four chapters deal directly with his early life and they are terrific.) He can be very, very amusing. (This is, here and there, one of the funniest books I've read in some time.)”
- Review of Hitch-22 by Christopher Hitchens, 5 June 2010 The Globe and Mail

“There is much in Kant! to amuse, instruct and entertain. So much so that it feels churlish to complain about anything. However, though the book is handsome, it is quite pricey for so short a text, only 125 pages.”
- Review of Kant! by Moses Harry Horwitz, 1 April 2009, The Globe and Mail

Criticizing the Critics -- Apparently I Stink

Andre Alexis doesn't like me:

If I had to blame one Canadian writer for this state of affairs, I’d blame novelist and critic John Metcalf. Yes, it’s rhetorical to blame any single person for the current state of critical affairs. But Metcalf, with his early books of essays and through his encouragement of “critics” like David Solway and Ryan Bigge, has been, at the very least, a spur to the shallow, self-aggrandizing rhetoric that now passes for criticism.


What critics like Metcalf — and Connolly before him — have done is to declare the fineness of their own sensibilities sufficient to tell good work from bad. But, of course, they are the only possessors of their sensibilities. There is no basis for a universal aesthetic scale, unless the thought behind a sensibility is unpacked. Just to be clear: I’m convinced Metcalf and I, if we sat down together and read a page from a certain book, would agree, maybe eight times out of ten, on what is good and what is not. On the evidence, I think Metcalf and I have similar sensibilities. But those who have been influenced by him — Ryan Bigge, for instance — are not on the same level and don’t possess the same credibility, though they allow themselves to make the same kinds of pronouncements.


For some twenty years now, we’ve had the discussions that unfounded, pugnacious reviews bring. What knowledge or understanding of literature have they given us? Ryan Bigge insulting Leah McLaren in the pages of the Toronto Star, Carmine Starnino insulting whoever doesn’t happen to share his preference for certain kinds of verse, Philip Marchand expressing the opinion that poets shouldn’t write novels. The discussion is rarely helpful in building a shareable aesthetic. One of the very few clear opinions shed by Philip Marchand, for instance, is his belief that anyone who does not appreciate the greatness of Tolstoy is “deficient in taste, period.” A dubious opinion, given that Henry James, who has as great a claim to “taste” as Marchand, disliked War and Peace, and the late-career Tolstoy felt that his own early work was too verbose. As with all Metcalf’s children — and all of the critics I’ve just mentioned have been edited or published by him — Marchand’s statement is about himself, his belief in War and Peace’s greatness. He offers no defence of his opinion, believing that none is required. And so, we have come to the point where the mere fact of an opinion is more important than the basis for it. This is neither criticism nor reviewing but autobiography. Marchand is telling me something about himself. Starnino is telling me about his sensibility and how much he believes in his beliefs. Bigge is settling a personal vendetta with McLaren.

I can appreciate that my infamous review of McLaren's book was problematic, but it would be fair, or at least useful to point out that I've provided thoughtful, nay, intelligent reviews of dozens of books since I began reviewing in 2001.

It might also strengthen Andre Alexis's argument to actually quote from a review I've written.

And I've never spoken with, emailed with or otherwise conversed with John Metcalf -- which makes the claim that he has "encouraged" me fairly weak, unless you consider publishing me in Canadian Notes and Queries to fulfill that definition.

(Oh, and by the way, I have an essay in the next Canadian Notes and Queries about the 2009 Giller short-list. Rest assured Andre Alexis is not going to like it very much.)

(Full attack here).

(Andre Alexis shows us all how to properly review a book).

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Underground Literature of Toronto Subways

A picture and 1,000 words: TTC subway stations
Toronto Star | June 11, 2010 | Ryan Bigge

(Osgoode subway station courtesy CHRIS SHEPHERD/BAU-XI-GALLERY)

This fluorescent corridor of shiny yellow tiles was captured by Toronto photographer Chris Shepherd, who specializes in the deserted nooks and corners of subways. An empty and eerie Osgoode, along with a dozen other dehumanized subway stations, will be on display at Bau-Xi Gallery (across from the AGO) until June 19.

Subway stations funnel and tilt people toward their given destinations, with turnstiles, hallways and stairs serving as the pinball equivalents of ramps, bumpers and gates. So unless we’re stuck on the platform, waiting for service to resume shortly, we rarely have reason or opportunity to consider the aesthetic qualities of any given station. Here, without the usual clumps of people clogging the view, one is finally free to imagine what might be behind the enticing red double doors.

While Shepherd’s subject matter is quite fashionable, at least in terms of municipal politics, it’s not the first time Toronto’s subways have been transformed through acts of imagination. Our poets and novelists have also immortalized the caverns of public transit, in the process reinforcing the significance of the subway as both a mover of people and a central symbol of our urban psyche.

According to 17-year-old Samuel, the comic-book-obsessed protagonist of Rabindranath Maharaj’s new novel, The Amazing Absorbing Boy, subway stations like Osgoode are the domain of mole people. Which makes The Amazing Absorbing Boy underground fiction in the literal sense. Samuel has moved from Trinidad to Regent Park to live with his estranged father, and his first trip on our subway provides a fresh perspective on commuter psychographics. After paying “a man inside some sort of glass cage” and noting that everyone seems “vexed,” Samuel begins his decent. “The minute I walked down those steps I felt like I had entered a place with a different breed of people. A sort of Bizarro world with all the rules reversed.”

It’s particularly Bizarro, or at least bizarre, anytime after 8 p.m. on a weekend (with the PATH offering a touch of the bazaar). Regardless of how novelists might describe our subterranean transit system, it’s never treated as simple infrastructure. “It is a city that burrows, tunnels, turns underground,” writes Maggie Helwig on the opening page of Girls Fall Down. For Helwig, the arteries that rumble beneath the sidewalk grates reflect and direct our urban character. We might not be mole people, but we are shaped by the subway in ways that are not immediately visible — which is why Helwig’s novel involves a mysterious contagion that circulates through the subway: “The dangers to this city enter the bloodstream, move through interior channels.”

There is also the obvious, symbolic aspect to being above or below — light and dark, heaven and hell (especially if you’re on the subway in rush hour). As well as a clandestine aspect to the subway. In Russell Smith’s new novel, Girl Crazy, a straitlaced community college instructor named Justin goes rogue and finds himself on the wrong side of the tracks (in this case, somewhere north of Lansdowne and Dupont) buying a brick of marijuana that he conceals in a yellow plastic No Frills bag. After nearly getting caught by a pair of cops, he ends up at Lansdowne and Bloor, shaken but relieved. “He was almost at the subway station, which he could disappear into like a gopher down a hole.”

Lucky for Justin that he didn’t wander a few more blocks east. Ibi Kaslik, in a short story called “Lab Rats” (part of the Toronto Noir anthology), explains that the Dufferin Bus makes one feel “like a homicidal dumpling” and leads to a subway station “where no one believes in standing in line for anything, let alone a TTC ticket or a bus.”

Be they crowded or calm, empty or full, Toronto subways serve as miniature urban stages that encourage passengers give their truest performances. It’s no accident that the first scene of Dionne Brand’s novel What We All Long For (winner of the 2006 City of Toronto Book Award) takes place on a subway rumbling along the Prince Edward Viaduct: “People are packed in tightly, and they all look dazed, as if recovering from a blow.”

Meanwhile, three young people giggle and laugh, temporarily disrupting the sombreness of the morning commute. At least until they internalize the “uptightness on the train” and are “finally subdued by the taut silence around them.” Thus, the burrowing of the subway is both physical feature and psychological affliction.

In Girls Fall Down, two former lovers meet after many years apart, but their renewed friendship cannot endure the confined space of transit: “They stood up on the subway . . . neither of them able to accept the tight physical proximity of the narrow seats, appropriate only for close friends or complete strangers.”

Of course, not every fictional representation of our subways is meant to suggest that The Better Way is actually The Bitter Way. Philip Quinn, in his poetry collection The Subway, writes about a benign and cartoonish toll booth collector who “strips and mimes your tokens of affection.”

And Darren O’Donnell, in his 2004 novel Your Secrets Sleep With Me, notes that “If you lay your ear on the tracks you can tune into many of the different conversations that are happening on the various streetcars, the talk reverberating down into the seats, into the wheels, then saved and sent spinning into the tracks which zip them back, forth, up and down the city’s streets.” If this is also true of our subways, it might be reason enough to remove our earphones once in awhile and listen carefully to what our fellow citizens are saying.

Certainly our politicians need to listen more often to the reverberating conversations among Toronto artists. Instead of focusing only on TTC budgets and spreadsheets, those seeking transit solutions should also perform some poetry audits and close readings of novelists and photographers. Because whether you love or hate Transit City, we’re clearly a city defined by transit, with the buried hopes, fears and dreams of our collective unconscious scattered across the dark recesses of the subway.

(Big thanks to Amy Lavender Harris for her literary suggestions).

(Toronto Star link).