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 (www.atmosphereindustries.com) 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.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Snark Vs. Legitimate Criticism: Reprint of National Post Article on Canadian Book Reviewers

On the butcher's block
When it comes to book reviews, nasty is entertaining. But in Canada, you need to know where to look to escape meek and milktoast criticism
National Post | January 3, 2004 | Ryan Bigge

George Orwell, in his 1946 essay "Confessions of a Book Reviewer," describes lit hacks as malnourished and poor; varicose vein sufferers who endure low pay and a surfeit of bad books they must say something good about. "The prolonged, indiscriminate reviewing of books is a quite exceptionally thankless, irritating and exhausting job," he concluded. Fifty-odd years later, this Orwellian nightmare has not substantially altered, save perhaps for the varicose veins.

Not that literary hacks have ceased complaining. Every few years, a plea for improved rigour of craft (and more money) emerges. Andrew Pyper, writing in book industry broadsheet Quill & Quire in December, 1997, argued, "If we want Canadian literature to be taken seriously, we must take Canadian criticism seriously along with it." Sadly, such noble intentions normally melt into the background hum, but lately, literary chatter about weak-kneed book reviews has become unshushable.

Talk began in March of last year when the anti-Snark campaign was launched, courtesy of The Believer, a new San Francisco mag from the McSweeney's literary factory. To summarize co-editor Heidi Julavits's overlong, over-discussed essay: Snark is bad. (See www.believermag.com for the full text.) Clive James eventually rebutted in September in The New York Times, arguing that Snark (i.e. a "killingly negative review" meant to advance the career of the reviewer at the expense of the author) can be good. Laura Miller soon tried to split the difference in the New York Times Book Review and on and on ... the literary equivalent of the old woman who swallowed the fly.

Meanwhile, professional Snarkers like Dale Peck (a target of the Julavits essay) and Tibor Fischer continued to accrue notoriety for suggesting Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation and Martin Amis is a wanker, respectively. (Peck, an author of four novels no one has read, has made a mini-career of Snark, and Hatchet Jobs, an anthology of his book review bile will be published this spring.)

As a reviewer myself, I think this sustained public debate is easily the most exciting thing to happen to our metier since the London Review of Books started accepting personal ads. (From the November issue: "The greatest bliss a couple can enjoy is to jointly urinate on public displays of poetry.") And by no means is the topic exhausted. Witness Carolyne Van Der Meer's recent essay "What's Wrong with Book Reviewing in Canada?" published in subTerrain, a scrappy lit-mag out of Vancouver. Van Der Meer wants to see harsher criticism of books, but describes well the Catch-22 facing many would-be Snarkers: irritating an influential author can be a terrible career decision, but a dishonest reviewer who waffles or avoids truth telling will also suffer from a lack of respect. Van Der Meer concludes that book reviewers have a moral responsibility to say what they think, or suffer their tortured conscience.

And then there is The Malahat Review, a University of Victoria literary journal whose newest issue is devoted entirely to debating book reviews, functioning as a de facto Royal Commission on the topic. Sadly, The Malahat Review, given a circulation of 1,000, is akin to samizdat -- although this implies illegal political content it does not possess; indeed, it receives grant money from both the Canada and British Columbia Arts Councils. The Malahat might be whispering into the wind, but its lack of profile does not diminish the relevance of the issues raised. The alarmist cover story of the December, 2003 Quill & Quire discusses "aliterates" -- young, intelligent Canadians who are able to read books but choose not to do so, preferring instead the instant gratification of DVDs, Friendster or video games. Such conscientious objectors comprise 40% of the population, and unless this literary allergy is cured quickly, the already woebegone book industry in this country will face further peril.

If book reviews are the lighthouse of literary culture, then it stands to reason they must be entertaining, provocative and accurate. But lodged inside the Canadian debate about tougher reviews is a generational battle being waged over urban versus rural fiction. This skirmish is best described in The Malahat in an e-mail exchange between reviewers Bert Archer and Zsuzsi Gartner, as the latter describes her frustration with well-written but unenjoyable "Canadian horsehair-shirt books, or cod-liver oil books -- both you and the characters suffer and suffer and become better human beings for the experience, or die trying (or of boredom)."

As Archer notes, negative reviews provide an opportunity to discuss what is missing in the CanLit ecosystem: "Calling attention to a book's faults should not be considered courageous; it should be considered the job description." Gartner, meanwhile, believes that "often the best response to a lame book is a murderous silence." Reading these comments, along with the thoughts from the 20 or so other contributors to the issue, it becomes clear that not all Canadian reviewers adhere to our stereotypical meek and milquetoast demeanor. In fact, a few even Snark, if you know where to look. For example:

- "I suspect Mavis Gallant's grocery lists are more elegant than anything Atwood has written."

- "In fairness, Miss Wyoming is often funny. But it would be better -- and funnier -- if the characters didn't melt so quickly when left out in the sun."

- "This is the sort of paragraph that creative writing profs pass over because it would be too damaging to the student writer's ego to point out everything wrong with it."

The final comment, by the way, refers to The Ash Garden, by Dennis Bock, not some turgid Harlequin. All are courtesy of Canadian Notes and Queries (CN&Q), a literary magazine printed twice a year by thePorcupine's Quill (the press responsible for When Words Deny the World, a collection of rabble-rousing essays by Stephen Henighan published last spring which attempted to explain everything that is wrong with CanLit). Unfortunately, if The Malahat Review is samizdat, then CN&Q, with its circulation of 400, represents a particularly well-edited church newsletter.

And not to suggest that Snark fixes everything. Nasty is entertaining (thus solving one problem with many book reviews) and ensures you never look at that book the same way again. But like cinematic violence, it desensitizes. A collection of Dale Peck's eviscerations will no doubt resemble a rote horror film -- we know those nubile teenagers trapped in the woods are going to die, the only question is: pitchfork, chainsaw or scythe?

Girding the Snark debate in Canada is an unspoken lack of confidence about our literary traditions. Rick Moody has not retired, nor will Martin Amis or Margaret Atwood pawn their keyboards because of a few sharp words. We need to learn to utter unpopular opinions more often, otherwise, as Carolyne Van Der Meer argues in subTerrain, "Too many pedestrian books will continue to get published and find their way into literary culture, ultimately muddying the distinction between banal writing and first-rate literature."

According to the Orwell confession, "The best practice, it has always seemed to me, would be simply to ignore the great majority of books and to give very long reviews -- 1,000 words is a bare minimum -- to the few that seem to matter." Given evaporating attention spans, lengthier reviews might sound like a suggestion smuggled out of the sanitarium, but multiple pages are usually necessary to prove the worth (or guilt) of a particular book. Peck spent nearly 6,000 words destroying Rick Moody's memoir The Black Veil and Canadian Notes & Queries offers reviewers 2,000 words-plus to thoroughly castigate (or celebrate) their victim.

Obviously, it is better to give than receive in such circumstances, but for those on the butcher's block, it's worth remembering that in 1886, Edmund Gosse's book From Shakespeare to Pope received a 41-page dismantling in the Quarterly Review courtesy of John Churton Collins, an Oxford-educated critic who spent four months preparing the review-cum-eulogy. Miraculously, Gosse and his reputation survived the Snark, and he continued to publish -- his A Short History of Modern English Literature was reprinted 10 times. Similar success eluded Collins, and he died unhappy, although, one assumes, with a clear conscience.

Snarky Sidebar
Some writers have never been afraid to utter an unpopular opinon. Here are a few samples of some of the most venomous, excerpted from Bad Press: The Worst Critical Reviews Ever!:

As a piece of good taste [his essay on George Sterlin] ranks with that statuette of the Milo Venus with the clock in her stomach.
-- Dorothy Parker on Upton Sinclair in The New Yorker, December, 1927

One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.
-- Oscar Wilde on Dickens's The Old Curiosity Shop

Indeed the whole of Milton's poem, Paradise Lost, is such barbarous trash, so outrageously offensive to reason and to common sense that one is naturally led to wonder how it can have been tolerated by a people, amongst whom astronomy, navigation, and chemistry are understood.
-- William Cobbett on Paradise Lost, in A Year's Residence in the U.S., 1800

The monster gibbering shrieks, and gnashing imprecations against mankind -- tearing down all shreds of modesty, past all sense of manliness and shame; filthy in word, filthy in thought, furious, raging, obscene.
-- William Makepeace Thackeray on Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver's Travels

This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.
-- Dorothy Parker

No one has written worse English than Mr. Hardy in some of his novels -- cumbrous, stilted, ugly, and inexpressive -- yes.
-- Virginia Woolf on Thomas Hardy, The Moment, 1947

Monsieur Zola is determined to show that if he has not genius he can at least be dull.
-- Oscar Wilde on the French novelist Emile Zola

It may be that this autobiography is set down in sincerity, frankness, and simple effort. It may be, too, that the Statue of Liberty is situated in Lake Ontario.
-- Dorothy Parker on evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson's autobiography, In the Service of the King, in The New Yorker, February, 1928

If the author's object was to realize an American bore so perfectly that most of his readers would feel as if they were suffering from the man himself, he may be congratulated on a masterly performance.
-- The English Review, July, 1928, on The Man Who Knew Coolidge, by Sinclair Lewis

Here is Miss Seward with six tomes of the most disgusting trash, sailing over the Styx with Foolscap over her periwig as complacent as can be -- Of all Bitches dead or alive a scribbling woman is the most canine.
-- Lord Byron on Anna Seward

From Bad Press, by Laura Ward (Copyright) 2002, Baron's

Me Not Book Smart

Jeet Heer explains my intellectual shortcomings in today's National Post:

I do admire the gallantry with which Alexis defends the literary reputation of Leah McLaren, who was viciously insulted by Bigge. But it should be said that McLaren and Bigge are both creatures of the world of confessional journalism and media hype. They hardly belong in a literary discussion at all.

I should point out that I haven't written anything that could be described as confessional journalism for at least four years, possibly longer. Instead, I've spent the past few years writing think pieces for the Sunday Star's Ideas and Insight section.

Or, to put it another way: I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.