Sunday, June 29, 2008

Rebecca Reviews Muriella Pent

Note on the reviewer--I have for some time being trying to write a real book review. I have a *lot* of trouble expressing opinions. This is not to say I'm not opinionated, but I get stuck fast, especially when I feel I might be judged or, horrors, argued with. I generally avoid making objective statements about things that are important to me, and here you know we're talking about books. I think books are one of the most important things in the universe, and I greatly fear getting them wrong.

*However*, books are stronger than I am, I'm sure--they can stand a little misjudgement. And if I would presume to write them, I would presume also to understand something about how they work, and by what criteria they might operate. So I wanted to try a review, and I've been on the lookout for a book I thought I might be able to work with. I chose Russell Smith's Muriella Pent for a few reasons, mainly that I liked it a lot. I thought it would be easier to find interesting, witty, insightful things to say about a piece of fiction that is itself interesting, witty, and insightful. That's a cheat, and I know real reviewers don't have that perogative--one of the many reasons why I am not one. I also thought it'd be useful to review something by a writer whose back-catalogue I'm familiar with. I've actually read *all* Smith's other fiction books (though not his fashion writing) and am likely by any standards a fan. So this whole process is wildly biased, but hey, it's a start.

Ok, a review of *Muriella Pent* in 1500 words of semi-astuteness. Ok. Ok, go!

Muriella Pent is a wealthy fiftyish widow. Her children are grown, and she lives alone in a stuffy gated community, trying to fill her days with gardening, which proves unsatisfying, and the local arts council. Muriella once had some artistic ambitions, and she sees the council as an opportunity to learn as well as help.
Besides Muriella, there are three other points of view: Brian, a fellow council member who has just finished his BA in English; Julia, the daughter of one of Muriella’s friends, who also knows Brian from school; and Marcus Royston, a poet from the Caribbean that the council brings to Toronto for an artistic residency. Due to funding cuts, the only actual residence available for the residency is in the maid’s quarters of Muriella’s enormous house.
There’s the premise, and it has a fair amount of interest. Marcus, who has lived through a revolution, and its grinding bureaucratic aftermath, still believes in the purity of the artistic impulse. His journal writing and poems—inserted between chapters—convince the reader that he is the real deal, but his drinking, womanizing, and disrespect of political agendas quickly alienates the desperately policitically correct council. Royston—and, one can imagine, Smith—is disgusted by the idea that artistic quality can only be measured its usefulness in achieving social aims: “building community” and “giving voice to the voiceless” are some of the disdained ideas.
There’s a lot of ideas in this book. Debates at meetings of the embattled council, bantering between honour students, diary entries of urban observation are disturbing and hilarious, by turns or in tandem, but they don’t move the plot at any great clip. A set piece of a public library press conference features a homeless man eating all the cheese (“The man had a raincoat which was still largely coherent…”), a paraphrase of comments that Jane Jacobs made, and one more nail in unpopular poet’s coffin, but in terms of pure plotting the book could have done without it. In terms of pure plotting, the book could have done without most of its best moments, actually.
So MP is not a plot-drive n book then. I think it is on the razor-sharp edge between satire and emotional realism, and I think that’s why it’s awesome. To write a decent satire, you have to both love and hate your subject—a straight lampoon is one laugh only. The characters in MP are intellectually and sensually vivid, in contrast with the world they live in, which is full of pretension, posturing, aggression and stupidity. The wild and wide digressions are the best bits, full of bite and sympathy both. Early on, we have a car full of people so tense they are vibrating, all snarking and vying for attention while poor Muriella struggles to merge on the 401 in rush hour. Later, the horror of running into someone you know at the video store and being judged by whatever you happened to have in your hand:
“I like Catherine Deneuve,” she said softly.
“Why?” said Jason.
“Why? I don’t know. Why do you like any actors?”
“Well, usually when we like things,” Jason said a little too loudly, “we are able to articulate some reason…”
The characters are the heart of the book, and I think most of them are remarkable achievements. Before reading, it wasn’t the scathing commentary on arts funding that worried me, but rather the idea that a white, fortyish guy would be writing from the POV of a middle-aged woman, a twentyish woman, and a Caribbean-born man of mixed race. I think Smith does a credible job on all counts, though not flawless. Muriella is probably the most diverse, most sympathetic character he ever created—she’s sweet and self-conscious and not without irony, yet she’s obsessed with her clothes and she calls people lovey (I didn’t think people other than Mrs. Thurston Howell did that). When Smith re-released his pornographic novel, Diana, I heard him speak about how he wrote that book in part to learn about writing about women from within a female body, about sex from a woman’s point of view. You can see those lessons put to good use here—Muriella fully inhabits her body, fully wears her clothes. She even feels her grief over her husband’s death in her body. Sometimes it’s too much, though, this embrace of female physicality, especially with Julia’s character. She’s so so so beautiful, and every other character wants to sleep with her, so she doesn’t get a lot of other characteristics. Actually, that’s not fair—her intelligence and willful self-neglect, self-destructiveness, are evident, but given short shrift. Julia actually quotes from her own diary at one point, which is an unenjoyable narrative shorthand for she’s very bright and insightful, see?
I could have used a little more time on Julia’s mind instead of so much on her nipples—“She did not put on a bra…to show off a little,” “The top was thin as film, and tight across her small breasts,” etc. Neither Julia nor Muriella wears a bra. In fact, no woman in this novel who neither morbidly obese nor a tool of the patriarchy chooses to be so “unencumbered.” This is fantasy: Toronto is the most over air-conditioned place I’ve ever been, and the subways are crowded—and I found it distracting.
Marcus Royston is a complicated and nuanced creation. He’s pathetic and sympathetic, passive aggressive and irresponsible. You like him, but he drinks too much and sleeps with everybody and calls himself a poet while writing little poetry. His sad patience (he winks at his favourite prostitute as he walks towards his boss’s office the day he knows he’ll be fired) and his observations on the seasons (end of October: “baths are drawn, doors are closed”) show a real poet at work, and the actual poems here are pretty damn good. But there isn’t enough of his point of view for me, especially in the second half of the book. It’s more Muriella’s story all along, and Brian and Julia take up more and more space. Marcus kind of gets shifted to the side, a catalyst spent in causation, burning out. We don’t know what his life entailed before coming to Toronto—people don’t ask him a lot of questions, and his note-taking is limited to present-day observation, and poetic musing.
The fourth POV character is Smith’s stock-in-trade—Brian, the literature and video-game loving, pretentious, self-conscious jerk/sweetheart who sees “nothing but humiliation” in pretty girls, and wants to write “such a novel of sadness and devastation” as revenge for that humiliation. He’s funny and awful and totally familiar, especially when bantering with his best (only?) friend, Jason. If I could write young men this well, I don’t know that I’d ever bother doing anything else. You don’t see Tiger Woods knocking himself out on the soccer field, you know? Listen to this, and I mean really, read it aloud and listen:
“Why are you wearing that hat?”
“What’s wrong with my hat?” Jason touched it front and back without both hands as if straightening it in a mirror. He looked very serious and Brian laughed.
“Does it come with spurs and chaps, or a little badge? Is it Halloween?”
“What’s your ambient name?”
“I have other hats, you know, you could wear, like a medieval helmet, with a visor, it comes with a whole suit or armour, and a shield, you could walk around like that if you liked. Or how about a hobo costume, with overalls and the stick and the little bundle in a red handkerchief?”
“Shut up,” said Jason. “Chicks like hats like this.”
I know boys like that, though honestly, most of them are not quite as funny.

Four points of view, two countries, one mansion, two basement apartments, a drunken party, some sexual dalliances, some cameos from previous Russell Smith books (yep, am a fan), too much booze and a lot intellectual posturing: could you forgive me for saying that I think this novel is a beautiful tribute to Canadian ideals not quite working out? We Canadians haven’t quite nailed down what our literature or our country should look like, what we actually mean when we say “Cultural Mosaic,” or why we keep segregating ourselves culturally—the comments on “Little Malta” are pretty emblematic—when we like the idea of unity so much. The way these characters ebb and flow and refuse to define themselves is very definitely Canadian to me. And by the end of the book, all characters are shaken and surprised and, mainly, expanded by the mixing up that comes from going beyond cultural definitions and engaging in real life. Pretty impressive for a work of fiction.

Oh my goodness, reviewers work hard. I’m spent.

That's not my name

1 comment:

Intersection said...

Awesome review RR. It's so nice to have someone that shares my fondness for Russell.

Here's are some thoughts from the dudeage-perspective. I think Russell's portrayal of Brian and Jason is very well done, but their age is a little off. They remind me more of even younger guys fresh out of high school. Most dudes, especially the ones that fancy themselves intellectuals, ditch the video-game tv-quoting lingo of the high school years for a much more pretentious and insider discourse of critical theory. Perhaps Russell is aware of this; especially so since few people got all the post-structuralists jokes that littered How Insensitive and Noise. Maybe the lingo was a way of making their geek-chic a little more accessible.

As for the ladies, I agree wholeheartedly with your comments. I think there is a little too much discussion of nipples in the book. I have a feeling that girls do not spend nearly as much time considering their boobs. I also have yet to see many girls displaying their "politics" except for maybe around Pride week; and on that occasion a lot of people (guys included) skip the pointed clothing and go straight towards oh-natural (I'm aware that I could have used a better word then 'straight' there but I am feeling lazy).

Marcus does indeed become too much of a tool by the end of the book. I guess on the level of symbolic action it makes sense for him to be "burnt out" of the plot. But there is something unsatisfying about that ending; too much good for Brian (he has to commit a cliche act of masculinity to feel good about himself) and not nearly enough poor Marcus. Royston is a tough one to read because he is such a conscious ass and yet has some redeeming characteristics about (including the being an ass). I think maybe the novel would have been a little less good if Marcus showed up and just humorously criticized all the Torontonians. Such a trajectory, as you mention, would veer the novel dangerously close to one-dimensional satire.

I can't decide how the book stands in the Smith cannon. For me it is a little too didactic and reminds me a lot of those earlier heavy handed books about Canada (whom Smith hates so much). I'm increasingly becoming a fan of hard modernist realism which I think better describes his earlier work. I find myself reaching for the older stuff over MP any day.