"FROM MY EARLIEST DAYS," SAYS Shyam Selvadurai, "I was aware of the interaction between the personal and the political." Born in Sri Lanka in 1965, he witnessed at first hand the communal conflicts that exploded into widespread violence 18 years later. Since emigrating to Canada with his family in 1984, Selvadurai has made a career for himself as a professional writer, and in Funny Boy he lovingly recreates the society that still "haunts my imagination." He adds that "Being in Canada has been good, however, in that it has given me a creative perspective that I might not have had otherwise."
The judges' decision wasn't an easy one -- only one chose Funny Boy first, although the other two made it a strong second -- and here's what they had to say about all the novels on the short list:
IT WAS HARD, AS it always is in such contests, to pick one winner. However.
My choice is Funny Boy, by Shyam Selvadurai. Warm, human, funny, moving, this is the kind of novel that, although set in another country, draws us into it with characters and families we can recognize in any culture. The writing style, with its child's point of view, is crisp and clear and deceptively simple, because there is, of course, an underlying complexity and darkness. Selvadurai explores two main themes, the homosexuality of his protagonist, Arjie, and the growing racism in Sri Lanka during the years leading up to the 1983 riots, and the two, the personal and the political, are artfully interwoven. Certainly there are moments in the book when the manipulative hand of the author shows through (such as in the episode where Arjie deliberately mangles his recitation of a poem), but even then the writing is so convincing that I did not feel a significant disruption/ interruption. This is a novel of surprising universality that satisfies on virtually every level, and it is one I will remember for a long time.
Diane Schoemperlen's In the Language of Love is another beautifully written book. Schoemperlen's prose style is about as good as it gets -- lucid, vivid, meticulously detailed, evocative of Shields or Munro. Particularly fine is the writing that examines the protagonist's childhood and the character of the mother, a complicated and unhappy woman. Innovatively conceived and written in 100 short chapters, using the stimulus words from the Standard Word Association Test as "frames," the novel gives us snapshots of four crucial times of Joanna's life. These chapters have such polished and self-contained prose they can be read individually as prose poems or postcard stories. Therein lies a problem -- the book doesn't really work for me as a novel. Before a quarter of it is over, we know virtually everything important about plot, character, and theme; each successive "snapshot" gives us more depth, but reworks the same material. I missed the tension, the forward movement, the what will-happen-next of evolving conflicts and plot. However, what kept me reading and enjoying the book was the richness of the language, the small details and insights, and by the end I had a sense of having fully experienced this character's life.
What I like about Cordelia Strube's Alex & Zee is is how she is able to make us become involved with two people who seem, at first, too self-absorbed, too willfully full of angst, to be interesting. While I did find it hard to develop much interest in or empathy with Alex in her excessive determination to get pregnant (despite the fact that she admits she doesn't even like children and "doesn't know what she wants") by whomever she can trick into sleeping with her (despite the fact her partner might have AIDS), I found the sections of the novel that follow Zee increasingly affecting. As he retreats into depression, unemployment/underemployment, and unsatisfying relationships, he nevertheless seems to grow and mature. Strube is at her best in giving us scenes that show the bleak urban landscape in which her characters try to find meaning, scenes where friends are dying or telling grim stories of others dying. Her dialogue, although it could have used some editing, is -- not surprisingly given her playwriting and acting credentials -- crisp, edgy, wincingly real. This is an exciting new talent.
Russell Smith's How Insensitive is also a scalpel-sharp look at the contemporary urban scene, of Toronto in particular. Wickedly satirical, it's a slice-of-life of the new crop of artistic wannabes, people whose lives are driven not by real achievement but by knowing the right people, by going to the right clubs, by sleeping with the trendiest partners. Privileged, well educated, self-preoccupied, these young people seem rather like the "remittance men" of old. I particularly liked Max, a Godot-like figure who promises fame and glamorous work but is never quite real. I admit, however, that I got tired of reading this after a while. I don't think the writing suffers from what is called (in poetry, anyway) "imitative fallacy," but if characters and their milieu are superficial, empty, repetitive, dilettantish, how do you sustain reader interest? I think Smith intends for us to care about Ted Owen, his protagonist, who enters this surreal world something of an innocent outsider, but who almost immediately becomes one of its proponents. Nevertheless, I was impressed with this book, with the accomplished writing, the risks it takes, the caustic humour.
In many ways the most ambitious novel here is Kitchen Music by Charles Foran. It's clear that the author did a great deal of research, especially on the material dealing with Irish fiddle music and with Viet Nam. The latter, certainly, seems to have paid off, because for me it's Hia and the story of her escape from Saigon that are the best parts of the novel. Her narrative is rich in drama, in physical and emotional suspense, in other characters we care about, in thematic and historic complexities. The balance of the novel, though, is devoted to following the main character, Pat, as he travels to Ireland with Hia in search of his roots. In his quest to discover the history of his father I felt the narrative straining, becoming more convoluted and rambling and expository as it tried to equal Hia's in depth and complexity. Still, this is a challenging exploration of concepts of place and home and our adult need for parents.
Thanks to all these writers, and I hope we'll be hearing from them again.
WHEN I agreed to be a judge for the SmithBooks/ Books in Canada First Novel Award, I was warned that I would find the choice difficult. And it has been. Here are five interesting and promising novels as different from one another as they could be -- in setting, method, and attitude, and in scope.
Shyam Selvadurai's Funny Boy takes us to Sri Lanka. Subtitled "A Novel in Six Stories," the book deals episodically with a Tamil boy's discovery that his idyllic, gentle life with a loving, somewhat eccentric well-to-do family is threatened by the hatred and violence of the Sinhalese majority. Along with this he learns the truth about his own nature -- his homosexuality. There is excellent detail here; we hear, see, and smell the life of these people as it
appears to a very sensitive child, and we feel with him as he realizes that everything he knows will be taken from him and he will have to begin again in another place-- in Canada. If I have a fault to find with the book it is the boy's tendency to over-hear just the right words he needs to add to his understanding.
In Russel I Smith's How Insensitive we have a young man who moves to Toronto to investigate what one might call the high life. There's plenty of fun in the book -- satires of prominent Toronto literati (Smith kills off one of them) and others I'm not equipped to recognize. This is different from other accounts of young artists on the make because it deals not with the usual scruffy lot but with young people from Rosedale, who in one sense at least have it made. I liked the character of Max, who apparently holds the key to the young hero's future; he turns up again and again only to vanish, but appears finally at the last to provide a sort of "ending." This is a very youthful book in its preoccupation with one particular group with no sense that the larger world and a more complex society even exist.
Charles Foran's Kitchen Music describes two young strangers in Ireland -- a Canadian in search, "actually not consciously in search," of the truth about his father's death, and his Vietnamese "companion" who is anxious to come to terms with her mother's death, which in a sense she caused. This girl is a fascinating character, not in the least the stereotype of the suffering boat-person with which we're familiar -blunt, independent, perceptive, odd. I was rather less interested in the Canadian young man and in the truth about his father's death, which is delayed and delayed "because of the young man's lack of concern with the matter." There's a great deal of description of Irish fiddle music, which is ostensibly the young man's reason for being in the country. I'm fond of fiddle music but I guess I'd rather listen to it than read about it. The characterization of the Vietnamese girl almost saves this book -not quite, however.
I imagine that most people know by now that Diane Schoemperlen's In the Language of Love is based on the 100 stimulus words used in the Standard Word Association Test. Some of the ruminations on these words are very short, others several pages in length. There are the lists and dictionary definitions for which Schoemperlen is known. The rumination on the first word, "table," gives, appropriately enough, the outline of the central character's life -- her family background, affairs, and eventual happy marriage. The others tell us more, and in more detail, about these things. There is unfortunately a good deal of repetition, of going over and over the same ground, not always giving increased subtlety or depth. It's an interesting attempt and pleasantly written, but I felt that Schoemperlen was the slave of her method rather than its mistress and that the book is ultimately a tour de force rather than a novel in any sense of the word.
Last of all is Cordelia Strube's Alex & Zee, my choice of the five. Strube has really made a world, which I accepted as I read. I was intensely interested in this somewhat droopy pair of characters who can't live together and can't live apart -- it's a tribute to Strube's skill that she made me interested almost in spite of myself -- Zee who wants to have meaning in his life and finds it in watering the plants in a high-rise commercial building, and Alex who longs to be pregnant, succeeds, then has a miscarriage. They come together at the last in a splendidly handled conclusive/inconclusive scene that avoids sentimentality or unnatural finality. Before that there's been some really marvellous dialogue, the sort that presents character sharply and briefly; Strube has a history of writing radio plays and it shows. This is a fine first novel and though it sometimes seemed longer and more diffuse than it needed to be, I feel that it well deserves the Smithbooks/Books in Canada First Novel Award.
I READ FOUR of these five novels with pleasure and admiration, thinking as I went: now this is possibly the winner. Having to choose a favourite, unfortunately, means having to come up with reasons for not choosing three novels that I enjoyed very much.
Charles Foran's Kitchen Music struck me as the least successful of the five. It does offer some pleasures: the descriptions of Irish fiddle music are impressive, the evocation of Irish landscape and weather is wonderful, and several of the interviews with fiddlers provide striking portraits. And the novel is certainly ambitious in its use of various narrators, in jumping back and forth in time, and in tackling big issues: loss of roots, loss of family, the nature of art.
This last ambition is also one of the novel's main weaknesses. It tends to strain at its big issues in an overt, sometimes hackneyed fashion. Hia is trying artistically to reconstruct Angkor Wat from a fragment she bought from a wizard, and Pat is trying to track down the ghost of his unknown father in the form of Irish fiddle music. The story often seems implausibly built on such symbols.
Another problem is the novel's awkward narrative movement, especially in the parts set in Ireland. The characters bicker and glance off one another in inexplicable ways. The underlying reason for all the obliqueness and delay seems to be that the author wants to create suspense. If the Irish characters simply told Pat what they know about his father, or if Pat simply asked them a straight question, we'd quickly find out how Pat's father died. But we're not to find this out till the end, and so everyone has to hem and haw and avert their eyes as long as possible. The story feels impeded, blurred.
In Funny Boy Shyam Selvadurai displays a very impressive storytelling ability. His characters are large and involving. Their struggles mirror and grow out of the larger social conflicts specific to Sri Lanka in the 1970s and '80s, but the characters themselves stay in the foreground and are never mere devices for illustrating these issues.
Selvadurai's prose is graceful and lucid. Although the narrator is not a child but an adult looking back on his boyhood experience, some of the innocence and simplicity of the child's outlook carries over into the adult's voice. The result is a warm, engaging tone perfect for storytelling in the traditional sense. The story moves with calm assurance. The first three episodes especially have the contours of stories that have been much lived with, groomed into folk-tale clarity and solidity.
"The Best of All Schools" episode seems to me to be a slightly weak part of the novel. In it the imaginative distance between author and narrator breaks down. We feel too strongly pushed to like some characters and dislike others. The story is told not primarily for its own fascination or for insight into the period or culture but in order to make a case on behalf of the schoolboy lovers and against the brutal school authorities. The novel's first episode, "Pigs Can't Fly," depicting the narrator's earliest collision with gender barriers (in which he is forbidden to play with the girls and rejected by the boys and thus becomes a classic free-moving witness), is extremely successful because of the greater imaginative distance between the narrator as storyteller and the narrator as character. There he looks back on himself with dispassionate fascination, and in the process explores the fundamental values in his society without condemning them overtly.
By constructing In the Language of Love from associations triggered by the 100 words of the Standard Word Association Test, Diane Schoemperlen creates the impression that the world her novel explores has a separate, fully formed existence outside of her novel; her book is a series of core samples of that world taken from various angles.
This foregrounding of narrative framework gives her novel a deliberately literary feel. We read not only for narrative but for the variety and quality of the insights, the musical flow of associations. For the most part her technique works very well. The novel shifts effortlessly back and forth from recent to early events in Joanna's life and jumps from subtle details of her thoughts and tastes to broad overviews of her experiences.
But while the technique is unconventional, the world of the novel is solidly familiar -- perhaps sometimes too much so. Some of the associations, such as under "34. Spider," seem a bit banal. When Joanna's life as a mother and her relationship with her son are being considered, too many teddies, cookies, and sheep find their way into the novel. I know, I know, Joanna is desperate to conjure up a world of innocence to counteract her own fears of disaster, but I find the tone too homey at times, too safety comic.
But the novel is also brash, sexy, lyrical, and honest. After a commonplace passage it always surges back with brilliant insights on sleep (#37) or sombre meditations on cold (#24) that lift us well beyond conventional comic storytelling.
Schoemperlen's choice of narrative technique, I think, is initially liberating; then it becomes a burden, a kind of marathon: she's forced to deal with each of the 100 words. She should have been free to chop more out. At a certain point -certainly by the time we're two thirds of the way through the book -- many of the associations prompted by words like "ocean" and "head" become familiar and repetitive. But I like the novel's energy and abundance. I like the way the novel itself is in motion, probing, trying to get to the truth, even though the story it contains is mostly told early on.
In Alex & Zee, Cordelia Strube's prose is scrupulous and lucid, and her dramatic method of narration gives the novel a surface of sharp-edged realism that goes well with the subject matter: fractured lives in the big city. Everything is directly shown. All we learn of the world of Alex and Zee is through what the characters say and do and what Alex and Zee think. It's also a novel of accurate observations, of snapshots of exchanges and predicaments that typify our world. In the background are glimpses of advertisements, derelict buildings, homeless people.
And there's an appealing offbeat quality to the book, first of all because it reverses the usual boy-meets-girl formula -it's about the unsuccessful break-up of a couple of very gloomy lovers. Odd angles and quirky gestures abound in it. In the middle of a difficult conversation Alex stares at her bug-eyed reflection in a spoon. The tone is lugubrious and hilarious: Alex has a gruesome miscarriage, Zee gets arrested for burying a dead canary in a park.
I admire Strube's effort to look honestly at the contemporary world, the loss of trust between the sexes, human self- hatred, selfishness, the painful search for new goals. But somehow what stirred me most in the novel was its technique and its sharp glimpses of life in the city. The characters, the story, and its lessons left me a bit cool. This might be partly because we're never shown why Alex and Zee think they love one another in the first place. Alex seems only to despise Zee, and Zee seems only to fear Alex. But I also feel there's something faintly contrived about Alex and Zee, a bit like TV or the movies. The novel wants to be grim, but it also wants to give us hope, wants to offset the bleakness with little details of decency: people picking up their dogs' turds, sad Alex trying to fly a kite, the whimsical boy-poet, Dwight, trying to cheer her up: these features seem to have been tacked on for popular appeal.
I read How Insensitive right after Funny Boy, and at first, following the calm music of Selvadurai's language, Russell Smith's style struck me as flat, synthetic, and overwritten: like opening a magazine after gazing at landscape. But after a page or two I felt Smith had established his fictional world, gotten his story going, and from then on was able to keep his whole novel in motion with seemingly effortless touches.
How Insensitive of course is satire, with caricatures and some stock situations, but it's very good satire. It's accurate and observant; it's deft and quick, preferring implication to heavy emphasis; it's more funny than bitter, it's aimed as much at the protagonist as at the rest of his world; it's entertaining.
But Smith's novel is more than strictly a satire of the artsy hip scene in Toronto (that evil city). In fact it overlaps in some ways with Alex & Zee. It's about single people in a crass, blighted world looking for love and personal freedom. But whereas Alex and Zee are shattered by despair and gender war-fare and show us a flicker of hope only by crawling back toward one another at the end, optimism and vitality are built right into How Insensitive in Ted's recurrent romantic infatuations and his appetite for glamour and adventure. Paradoxically, his decision to stay in Toronto and plunge back into the heart of phoniness and fashion is an act of liberation. It parallels the quest for freedom and adventure embarked on by the backpacking Vancouverite Ted encounters at the start of the novel. Freedom, even nature in the sense of untrammelled life, lies inside the city, not out in the corporate suburbs, certainly not in the necropolis of academe.
Of all these novels, Funny Boy and How Insensitive were the ones I found I reread with the most pleasure. And since I feel that How Insensitive got stronger right to the end, and since Smith was able to make his whole novel teeter and turn like a much smaller form, I give it first place.