Monday, July 12, 2010

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.