into the west

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

autoroute 20; salt fish girl

On my way to my grandmother's funeral last Wednesday, somewhere between Montreal and Rimouski, I waded through Larissa Lai's Salt Fish Girl. Indeed, reading it reminded me in many ways of the Hass review excerpt in the header of this blog: the waters flowing through the text's (post)apocalypse, coupled with its faintly surreal temporal but recognizable social structures, made the experience of reading it through rather like stepping into a(n) (un)familiar element, teeming with bioengineered life.

In working on a response for a class, though, I found that the element was remarkably difficult to sublimate (or condense), to translate into any sort of consistent coherence. At first, I tried to read it in response to an epigraph pulled from Spider Robinson's Telempath, fixating as many of the book's reviewers have on its characterizations of and reliance on smell. Because the response was for a class framed by Greg Garrard's notion of apocalypse as an environmental trope, I was looking at each author's approach to smell as characteristic of either the comic or the tragic mode that Garrard describes. Robinson's text, for those of you who might be unfamiliar with it, describes a post-apocalyptic world whose crisis is entirely dependent on the human sense of smell:
It was early afternoon, and the same sunshine that was warming the forests and dorms and work-zones of Fresh Start, my home, seemed to chill the air here, accentuating the barren emptiness of the ruined city. Silence and desolation were all around me as I walked, bleached bones and crumbling brick. Carlson had been efficient, all right; nearly as efficient as the atomic bomb folks used to be so scared of once. It seemed as though I were in some immense devil's autoclave, that ignored filth and grime but grimly scrubbed out life of any kind….
Carlson had said one word to me that afternoon, and the word was "Hyperosmia."
Within forty-eight hours every man, woman and child left alive on earth possessed a sense of smell approximately a hundred times more efficient than that of any wolf that ever howled.
During those forty-eight hours, a little less than a fifth of the planet's population perished, by whatever means they could devise, and every city in the world spilled its remaining life into the surrounding countryside. The ancient smell-suppressing system of the human brain collapsed under unbearable demand, overloaded and burned out in an instant.
The great complex behemoth called Modern Civilization ground to a halt in a little less than two days.

Until the very end of the novel, it tends toward a tragic conception of good and evil, and Robinson's protagonist follows a familiar heroic narrative arc. But I was primarily interested in how Lai's text, also fixated on genetically modified human smell—in more than one sense—and with a similar geographic garrison structure (though Robinson's is set against the ruins of NYC and Lai's is primarily the Canadian Pacific Northwest), uses both smell and apocalypse in ways more suited to the comic mode.

Durian is one of the more obvious connections to make to smell, as it in many ways characterizes the novel's future protagonist, Miranda. Its redolence of cat piss and pepper, described as such throughout the novel, clings to this girl from birth, and, in ways that I will leave to Lai to describe, ultimately leads to her initial conception through complicated intersections of culture, gender, interspeciality, and sexuality. But it is her bearing of this symptom that makes Miranda a particularly apt protagonist, as her peculiar relationship with it helps to frame the novel itself as a sort of "dreaming disease," which refers to one of the post-apocalypse effects of genetic modification that insinuate themselves into the lives and landscapes of the human communities, a disease, in many senses, of history and cultural memory that is intimately bound up in the (supposedly contracted) particular scents of those afflicted.

This experience of the novel as dream-disease is heightened by its fluidity (and sometimes alien and seemingly deliberately alienating) in chronology and geography, especially as its protagonists are careful to leave questions throughout, especially as to origins and conclusions, weaving a sort of indeterminate cyclicality whose preoccupation is with fragmentation and rebirth, a rebirth which is itself fractional and dynamic. Its unapologetic celebration of the abject, and perhaps also implied criticism of the adherence to a Romantic individual, allows the novel to complicate readers' sympathy with both characters and corporations, landscapes and waterways, and deliberately shifts the naturalization of beauty and the sublime through subtle critiques of cultural assimilation and heteronormativity.

And now, I think I've chattered long enough, so I'll leave you with a taste of Lai's fluid prose that perhaps makes this novel's juxtaposition with Moreau more apt than anticipated:
The sound of footsteps came from around a bend in the corridor. Ian pulled me into a side hallway. Pressed against the wall, I watched another group of Janitors pass, their tired feet scuffing against the floor. In horror I watched their backs as they moved away from us. There were rectangular holes in their uniforms that ran from the tailbone to the base of the neck. The muscle and skin of their backs had been replaced with some kind of transparent silicone composite so that you could see their spines and behind them, their hearts pounding, their livers and kidneys swimming in oceans of blood and gristle. We had studied anatomy at school. I could see that the organs had been shifted, had been carefully arranged like stones in a formal garden, mimicking the asymmetrical aesthetics of nature, but with human intention. (76-77)

Friday, November 5, 2010

humber river regional hospital, toronto; the island of doctor moreau

So I wasn't being intentionally macabre when choosing reading material for my wait-time in Emergency last week; it just so happens that H. G. Wells's The Island of Doctor Moreau was the only text I had yet to pick up for my courses, and I anticipated a long wait (16 hours was a bit excessive, but c'est la vie!). This wait was in the week leading up to Hallowe'en, no less, and as I was in the hospital I discovered that my grandmother had just passed away the previous day, so it was a spooky experience all around.

My oversharing, I promise, is going somewhere. It certainly informed my reading of the text, especially as I brooded on the potential reinstatement of Warfarin and its roots—and continued use—as rat poison. I thought about animal testing and the kinds of practice we as a species have engaged in while preparing ourselves to be surgeons of bodies and ecosystems. Given their proximity in the course, it seems only logical that this text would remind me of Neil Evernden's The Natural Alien, and in particular his discussion of vivisection. Indeed, it characterized tendency toward cutting vocal cords while dissecting live creatures, using the characters of Moreau and the protagonist to contrast the two approaches:
The crying sounded even louder out of doors. It was as if all the pain in the world had found a voice. Yet had I known such pain was in the next room, and had it been dumb, I believe—I have thought since—I could have stood it well enough. It is when suffering finds a voice and sets our nerves quivering that this pity comes troubling us. But in spite of the brilliant sunlight and the green fans of the trees waving in the soothing sea-breeze, the world was a confusion, blurred with drifting black and red phantasms, until I was out of earshot of the house in the stone wall. (38)

The narrator's honesty about the effects of silence on his willingness to torture resonated uncomfortably with me. My initial disgust at his confession was quickly mediated by my setting; not only was I surrounded by howling, sobbing people and wishing they might be quieter, but was also fetishizing through the means of obtaining that quiet all sorts of non-human animal suffering, as well as human medical environmental injustice. So I found myself continually struggling with the ethics not only of the novel, but of the academic, and of my constructed self as well, and can sympathize from different angles with the existential angst of Prendick's companion: "Are we bubbles blown by a baby?"(106). Though not an especially new reaction, either personally or critically, my profound discomfort was certainly compounded by where I happened to be sitting.

north york, toronto; three day road

Joseph Boyden's Three Day Road bears the potentially dubious distinction of being selected for both Canada Reads! and its local-to-a-faculty offshoot, FES Reads! I jest, mostly, about the dubiousness; the FES offshoot was a stimulating way of incorporating the importance of reading literature into a department that, while remarkably interdisciplinary, is still heavily populated by aspiring planners. Further, the specific texts chosen showed an interesting imagination of "the role that fiction writing can play in advancing our understanding and skills as environmental researchers," as described in the event outline. I'm inspired to read the rest and expand on this imagination in the future, if I can retain a sense of what everyone was saying!

The panelists, faculty and a graduate student representative, chose the title Boyden, Anne Michaels's The Winter Vault, Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things, and Daniel Suarez's Freedom(TM), to compete, and the process seemed an exercise in theatrics—as it should be, though the audience could have been a bit more energized in its catcalls. Boyden was defended primarily as full of action, which description all three non-Michaels panelists deliberately contrasted against The Winter Vault. But the tale's treatment of First Nations issues was also foregrounded, and its distinctly Canadian WWI battles, as well as a brisk narrative pace and resonant vocabulary.

I am also in a course taught by the day's conceptualizer and facilitator, Dr. Cate Sandilands, where this text is assigned (and, indeed, we were due to discuss it the following week), so I found it a fascinating debate. I hadn't read through yet, and found when reading the text in the wake of this discussion that I was expecting more from it, at least in the first half. Not that I was disappointed, per se, but as I rather enjoy Michaels, who made it to second place, I was inclined to assimilate the two rather more than I should have—which perhaps demonstrates just how topical the text really is for me.

Once I had drifted away from the impressions I'd received in FES Reads!, I found myself struck by Boyden's repetition of words, particularly the colour red. Indeed, I kept mentally comparing it to my (admittedly rather hazy, as I read it in the first year of my undergrad) recollection of Timothy Findley's The Wars. This comparison was fostered by both texts' complicated relationship with horses, and in what I would argue are similar ways. Findley's descriptions of red are multifoliate, using a wide range of Anglo-specific terms for the different reds of the battlefield. The section on horses, too, is very tightly bound to the subjective experience of the protagonist, whose relationship is, though not Schaeffer-complicated, still quite tangled and extremely personal. Red for Boyden, though, is consistently left in this three-letter word that calls to mind not only poppies and bloodshed, but also the outside racialization of the Cree protagonist. This red is described in myriad ways, but retains its complicated universalization, adding to the alienness of the English language for Xavier and to the enforced familiarity with his displaced landscapes. Horses are an essential part of these landscapes, as he and Elijah wryly observe that they will likely be mistaken by visual association for Plains Cree and expected to ride.

So, in the end I have to agree that this text is a great selection for both Canada and FES, even if it is initially useful in self-confrontation.

toronto, montreal, and rimouski; dress your family in corduroy and denim

Alright, I swear this is the last David Sedaris book I'll review for awhile, especially as I accidentally re-bought Barrel Fever, rather than one I haven't already read/don't already own. It would seem, I'm sure, that Sedaris has been the only author I've been reading since I got here, but bear with me, as I'm hoping to submit a fair few posts today. No promises, though, since they will virtually (hyuk) guarantee non-posting.

I'm hoping that writing these will inspire me to get back to work; it's been a crazy few weeks in that mythical realm, The Real World, that cares nothing for my assignments or Plan of Study, and as a result, I've been finding it difficult to motivate myself back into the world I normally exist in. So I was reading Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim1 on the way to my grandmother's funeral in an insane 35-hours-in-transit-less-than-20-in-the-city trip, and found it to be a remarkably apt choice. After all, Sedaris does perspective absurdly, and absurdly well, and he turned what might normally be an overwhelmingly depressing and uncomfortable sprint into learning to grieve and engage with the grief of others I haven't seen in at least ten years in my functional second language (despite its initial predominance, it's been years since I was actively fluent) with a wry self-consciousness and a recognition of the potential for transience. So neither of the trips felt too horrifically long, and I emerged on the other side mostly unscathed.

But enough about me. To the text! This collection is much more similar to other books I'd read of Sedaris's than Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, which is certainly not meant as a criticism one way or another. It was particularly appropriate, though, for when I was reading it, because the experience was a much more familiar and comfortingly hilarious one. As Chelsea Cain puts it in the back cover snippet, "It's laugh-out-loud funny, outrageous, and sad, which is just another way of saying it is vintage Sedaris." The darkness, or sadness, is one I have come to recognize, and his autobiographical anecdotes enable the kind of self-consciousness mentioned above, which I needed.

The essay "Repeat After Me," for example, was exceptionally cathartic. His relationship with his sister, Lisa, is framed by her parrot, Henry, whose comic relief allows Sedaris to confront both his own and his family's qualms with his use of their characters and relationships, foibles and fragilities, for the consumption of what has become a fairly international (though not global) audience. Hannah Simpson's acclaim is perhaps almost too appropriate for this collection, and in [articular this essay and the one about his sister Tiffany: "Thank God for the maladjusted lives of Lou and Sharon Sedaris. Their home may have been frenzied and their six children destined for therapy, but they gave us the shrewd and unconventional Davis Sedaris." After Lisa hears of the impending film to be made from her brother's work, she balks, turning to Henry as an initial outlet for her frustration:
"So now we have to be in a movie?" She picked her sneakers off the floor and tossed them into the laundry room. "Well," she said, "I can tell you right now that you are not dragging my bird into this." The movie was to be based on our pre-parrot years, but the moment she put her foot down I started wondering who we might get to play the role of Henry. "I know what you're thinking," she said. "And the answer is no." (148)

From this, Sedaris moves to another parrot-related anecdote, leaving a pause in the family drama for the reader to process Lisa's frustration and setting the scene for further development of one of his two lesser-mentioned sisters (Amy and Gretchen occupy much of Sedaris's attention, while Lisa and especially Tiffany are less frequently engaged, particularly as adults):
Once, at a dinner party, I met a woman whose parrot had learned to imitate the automatic icemaker on her new refrigerator. "That's what happens when they're left alone," she'd said. It was the most depressing bit of information I'd heard in quite a while, and it stuck with me for weeks. Here was this creature, born to mock its jungle neighbors, and it wound up doing impressions of man-made kitchen appliances. (148-49)

Sedaris weaves this story in with the narrative of Henry and his relationship with his family in such a way as to suggest that Sedaris himself might be the parrot, mocking his Lou, Hugh, and Sharon junglemates.

Sedaris is continually disappointed by Henry's mindless repetition, expecting him to respond with opinions to his mutual babbling with Lisa, then transitions to describing a lecture where the author "read stories about [his] family" and "answered questions about them, thinking all the while how odd it was that these strangers seemed to know so much about [his] brothers and sisters" (150). He affirms, "in order to sleep at night, I have to remove myself from the equation....I'm not the conduit, but just a poor typist stuck in the middle." But Lisa's presence in the audience, and her reaction to the idea of a movie, makes this "delusion much harder to maintain." The effect of her presence is compounded by her self-consciousness, faithfully repeated by Sedaris in the next few pages. He also emphasizes Lisa's affinity for animals, her emotional connection with and unwavering trust in them, both coming to a head in a story that he's expressly forbidden to share:
The incident began with a quick trip to the grocery store and ended, unexpectedly, with a wounded animal stuffed into a pillowcase and held to the tailpipe of her car. Like most of my sister's stories, it provoked a startling mental picture, capturing a moment in time when one's actions seem both unimaginably cruel and completely natural. Details were carefully chosen and the pace built gradually, punctuated by a series of well-timed pauses. "And then...And then..." She reached the inevitable conclusion and just as I started to laugh, she put her head against the steering wheel and fell apart. It wasn't the gentle flow of tears you might release when recalling an isolated action or event, but the violent explosion that comes when you realize that all such events are connected, forming an endless chain of guilt and suffering.

I instinctively reached for the notebook I keep in my pocket and she grabbed my hand to stop me. "If you ever," she said, "ever repeat that story, I will never talk to you again." (154-55)

Sedaris, in catching himself trying to convince his sister to change her mind and let him use it, is suddenly horrified by his own persistence. He, too, is haunted by the impending film, not for its potential to extremity in character, but to accuracy. His self-reflection is troubling, and the essay finds Sedaris in the kitchen with Henry, who repeats only Lisa's happiest stories:
From his own mouth, the words are meaningless, and so he pulls up a chair. The clock reads three a.m., then four, then five, as he sits before the brilliant bird, repeating slowly and clearly the words, "Forgive me. Forgive me. Forgive me." (156)

I'm aware that blockquotes are dominating this "review," and that it's only one of the many riveting stories in this collection. Really, I agree with Chris Lehmann's acclaim: "Do yourself a favour and rush out to read the damn book for yourself." Then, sit down and write a letter to someone you haven't seen in awhile. And another. Maybe a third.

1Fairly unrelated, but I rather enjoy the quasi-pornographic homogeneity of images that appear on the Google search (where it suggests you try Google Images).

Saturday, October 9, 2010

north york, toronto; when you are engulfed in flames

What a great title. I actually picked this book up at Munro's, Victoria's iconic and conveniently tourism-hotbedded (a word? no) bookstore—and, I discover now, "Canada's most magnificent," lucky me—and read about half of it as I was packing up to move and flying across the country. But it was the first book I finished in my new (evidently rather dangerous) neighbourhood, and so the experience shifted to a distinctly Torontonian one.

Indeed, it was the book I was reading my first night, when I discovered much to my chagrin that out there in Ontario, Labour Day and other holidays mean something: that everything is closed. Everything. I spent my first night wrapped in Pashminas, contemplating the cultural assassination this was likely implying. I was reading it when I discovered that the courses in my Environmental Studies program insist that you print hard copies of all of your assignments, despite the fact that three of my four courses have Moodle pages. When I discovered that liquor stores close at nine. That it is a common practice for grocery stores to package their produce in styrofoam. That the city releases warnings against swimming on certain days. That someone in Montreal thought that Calgary was in British Columbia. Smiling at people encourages them to follow you home. Museums tend to be free Wednesday afternoon. Bus fare works only in one direction, and only if you are confident of your travel path. Bus drivers seem to know every single street and business in the city (not true of Victoria, which is much smaller).

Point is, the title made entirely too much sense to me as I mired in picky-detail culture shock. It's not things like population and multiculturality and the 40-minute subway ride that have been throwing me, but the inconsequential details taken for granted. So Sedaris was the perfect companion in my bewildered wanderings through Ontario's quotidian absurdities. He deliberate examines of the nutty little details of life; indeed, he relishes in them:
I've always admired people who can enter a conversation without overtaking it. My friend Evelyn for instance, "Hello, so nice to meet you," and then she just accepts things as they come. If her new acquaintance wants to talk about plants, she might mention a few of her own, never boastfully, but with a pleasant tone of surprise, as if her parlour palm and the other person's had coincidentally attended the same high school. The secret to her social success is that she's genuinely interested—not in all subjects, maybe, but definitely in all people. I like to think that I share this quality, but when it comes to meeting strangers, I tend to get nervous and rely on a stash of pre-prepared stories. Sometimes they're based on observation or hearsay, but just as often they're taken from the newspaper: An article about a depressed Delaware woman who hung herself from a tree on October 29 and was mistaken for a Halloween decoration. The fact that it's illegal to offer a monkey a cigarette in the state of New Jersey. Each is tragic in its own particular way, and leaves the listener with a bold mental picture: Here is a dead woman dangling against a backdrop of scarlet leaves. Here is a zookeeper with an open pack of Marlboros. "Go ahead," he whispers. "Take one."

I'd like to think I'm a blend of the two, but then think back on the conversations I've had here; so many have started with, "Well, when I got here on Labour Day..." and ended somewhere around the fact that you can evidently recycle styrofoam. Usually I'll include what I routinely call "the one fact I knew about Toronto before I got here": it's illegal to drag a dead horse down Yonge Street on a Sunday. The story's changed, slightly; I now know that it's not "Young," for one thing, and it's become much more dramatic with the East/West divide. "Did you know," I'll say, and we have a ready-made conversation.

Then enters the mouse who makes tactical use of the collection's title, but I'll leave it to the sale rack at Munro's to share that one with you.

Friday, October 8, 2010

massey hall, toronto; squirrel seeks chipmunk

New (school) year's resolution: I'm just going to stop promising sequels.

WARNING: Plot spoilers ensue.

David Sedaris was in Toronto last weekend to read from his latest book, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk. I'd like to begin by saying that the reading was just excellent; Sedaris has a quirky sort of stage presence, combined of more or less unequal parts of golden comedic timing, self-effacing asides, and what he claims a listener to have described as a "Muppet" voice. These are all presented with a sort of seriousness, however, belied by the occasional snicker at a particularly absurd turn of phrase.

Needless to say, I was delighted by his reading. I'm always a little nervous before a reading begins; not everyone is instructed in or practices the art of reading aloud, and it can drastically alter the way I receive a story on re-reading post-reading. I leave it to you to untangle that. But Sedaris reads as he writes, and had the humility—arguably unnecessary in what is obviously a tour of promotion—to give some of his reading away. Granted, it was another form of self-promotion, but still; I appreciated his enthusiasm for the other voices on his latest audio book.

But what, you ask, does this have to do with his book?

Well, a fair bit. I purchased the book right before the reading, and hadn't had a chance to glance through it. So I didn't notice at the time that he was leaving pieces out, ending stories early, and that the omissions changed the stories. It was only while waiting in the idolatrous line afterward that I began reading. Actually, the line was so long that I read almost all of the "bestiary" by the time I made it to Sedaris's "friendly friendship," a self-consciously anthropomorphized series of short stories about animals as people. As Sedaris introduced (imagine square brackets, as this is a week-old paraphrase), "I was going to call them fables, except that I think I'm too immoral." So I won't call them fables, either; maybe ineffables.

This collection is distinctly different from any of the others I've read; rather than a series of sidesplitting essays explicitly about the adventures of Sedaris et al, the reader is introduced to the interanimal relations of a wide array of humanimals. "The Squirrel and the Chipmunk," for example, from which the title and fantastic (heh) cover illustration by Ian Falconer is taken, describes an interspecies romance cut short by the prejudices of family...and by jazz:
The chipmunk lay awake that night, imagining the unpleasantness that was bound to take place the following morning. What if jazz was squirrel slang for something terrible, like anal intercourse? "Oh, I like it to," she'd said—and so eagerly! Then again, it could just be mildly terrible, something along the lines of Communism or fortune-telling, subjects that were talked about but hardly ever practiced. Just as she thought she had calmed herself down, a new possibility would enter her mind, each one more horrible than the last. Jazz was the maggot-infected flesh of a dead body, the crust on an infected eye, another word for ritual suicide.* And she had claimed to like it!

The chipmunk is persuaded by the intolerance of her family and her own lack of education about squirrels and their culture to break it off. She eventually marries another chipmunk, has a family, and eventually uncovers the meaning of jazz, first as a genre of music, and then in her own personal revisionist narrative:
When her muzzle grew more white than brown, the chipmunk forgot that she and the squirrel had had nothing to talk about. She forgot the definition of "jazz" as well and came to think of it as every beautiful thing she had ever failed to appreciate: the taste of warm rain; the smell of a baby; the din of a swollen river, rushing past her tree and onward to infinity.

The story ends on this note of potential and mourning, and a touch of senility, and is therefore representative of not only the collection as a whole, but also Sedaris's reading. If these stories were sonnets, they would be Elizabethan instead of Petrarchan, with a beautifully macarbre volta in the reader's last breath.

Though remarkably problematic from an ecocritical perspective—something that I hope to pursue in more depth later—this collection forwards brilliantly Sedaris's past thematic criticism of human intolerance. By displacing the stories via species, the bestiary invokes a sort of Jamesonian remove—though not temporal—for the reader, who is encouraged to laugh at his or her own foibles and follies. And, as is usual with Sedaris but particularly sinister in this collection, this laughter is complicated by the illumination of darker underlying normative prejudices and truths, made palatable—and unexpulsable—by its seductive comedy.

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, I pronounce thee a success, a tragicomedy for the twenty-first century dissatisfied adult. Read the stories alone, aloud, or alchemically; they're worth the time.

*Here, I would like to just acknowledge the recent public response to the series of suicides prompted by heteronormative intolerance, and to extend my condolences to the families and friend of the youths. Also, I would like to link to some resources that might be of use to anyone struggling with similar issues. There is a community for you.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

fernwood, victoria and slocan; the cat who walks through walls

Consistency continues to be damned. (Not really, but for the purposes of this post, we'll pretend sincerity, a phrase I prefer to leave unexamined.) It just so happens that I suddenly stopped reading the aforementioned Glavin and Adams texts—through no fault of their own, of course—in favour of some very well-thumbed Robert A. Heinlein tomes with the shift of the weather. It's finally sunny again here in Victoria, which apparently makes me want to dip into the (un)familiar Tertius, space-time twisters, and sassy female counterparts1.

Dying isn't difficult. Even a baby kitten can do it. (382)

The Cat Who Walks Through Walls was my first encounter with Heinlein's future history, the summer after high school graduation (makes this post somewhat appropriate, as I now re-read—albeit not for the first time—in the summer after undergraduate convocation). My dad, an avid reader, had recommended his work several years earlier, but I chose literature as my site of teenage rebellion and refused to read any of "that science fiction crap." I was a fantasy girl, with a(n un)healthy dose of the classics and children's lit, and would not submit to my father's erratic taste.

In retrospect, this may have been ever so slightly ridiculous. But hey, I wasn't spray-painting old growth forests, burning down public monuments, or some inverted version thereof.

So this, like the Robinson post, will travel—space suit notwithstanding—and like the story itself, will muddle with the concept of time, as my imagination carries rather more immediacy to the hammock in my backyard, long since disintegrated, where I first met Richard Colin Ames Campbell, protagonist and narrator:

It was a gay ending to a happy evening. There was still the matter of the stranger who had had the bad taste to get himself killed at my table. But, since Gwen seemed not to be aware of the unpleasant incident, I had tabled it in my mind, to be dealt with later. To be sure I was ready any moment for that tap on the shoulder...but in the meantime I enjoyed good food, good wine, good company. Life is filled with tragedy; if you let it overwhelm you, you cannot enjoy life's innocent pleasures. (6)

So begins the "rollicking" action described in the New York Times review (excerpted on the back cover); within a few scant pages, Richard and Gwen are engaged, married, and exiled from several planets. Then the story gets interesting.

But what I particularly like about this novel (and did on the hammock), is/was/will be not so much the plot, which purposely ignores gaping questions and careens through the laws of probability and believable storylines,2 but the characters subjected to it. I remember the intense early summer green of the backyard cherry trees from which I was suspended as I imagined myself into the role of Gwen/Hazel Nowak/Stone/Long/etc. Apart from an intellectual attraction to Ames/Campbell, Gwen/Hazel's role appealed to me at the time as an ideal lady, smart, sexy, savvy, and comfortable in command:

But it was Gwen who brought down the house when Auntie finished her highly-coloured [sic] account. Gwen did it with pictures.

Listen carefully. Gwen had used all her ammo, six rounds, then—neat as always—she had put her Miyako back into her purse. And pulled out her Mini Helvetia, snapped two frames.

She had tilted her camera down a bit, for it showed not only both bandit vehicles but also three casualties on the ground and one bandit up and moving. The second shot showed four on the ground and the superdoughnut turned away.

I can't figure an exact time line on this but there must have been at least four seconds from the time she ran out of ammo to the time the giant wheel turned away. With a fast camera it takes about as long to shoot one frame as it does to fire one shot with a semi-automatic slug gun.

So the question is: What did she do with the other two seconds? Just waste them? (177-78)

Upon revisiting the story, I note to my slight dismay the idealized nature of her character; rather like Lizzy Bennet with Mr. Darcy, I wonder at the creature of Heinlein's vivid imagination and the implications of her impossible polish. But the narrative is playful and self-deprecating, and continually conscious of its profound SFicity. In the end, I appreciate the fact that her pedestal, while not as wobbly as my hammock, includes feist and personality; she's perhaps made even less attainable, but at least thereby functions as a confirmation of genre—and is neither distressed damsel nor femme fatale.

This was the first book I intentionally dogeared, the first I was bold enough to underline (though in pencil; belt and suspenders!), and the first that described cats, to my mind, satisfactorily. Indeed, I will likely use it for an intended future project on the depiction of felis domesticus in literature as an example of the potential for delicate treatment of the cat as individual rather than composite cliche. When I crack its spine, I can smell the sultry, almost stifling aroma of dusty oiled cedar walls marinating in second-floor heat—my childhood bedroom—and taste the sticky sweetness of the tiny backyard cherries (as opposed to the huge, pale Queen Annes wrapped around the front of the house).

At the same time, my current and past selves grapple with atmosphereless Luna and the sybaritic Tertius, communities of the distant imagined future in an almost-parallel universe where lifespans are dictated only by accident and there is space enough, and time. So even as this rereading takes/has taken/will forever be taking place at home in Victoria's Fernwood neighbourhood, in another ficton (which concept will be expanded and featured in my next post, I promise), a young(er) girl who feels impossibly old is discovering adult Heinlein for the first time as she nibbles on baby carrots from the family garden.

1A note on the latter: Heinlein has been accused of misogyny, which accusation was rebutted by Spider Robinson in favour of "Bob" as a champion for women. I find myself toeing the line between these extremes; Heinlein writes some of the most interesting women I have yet to encounter in any sort of literature, but they tend toward the superhuman, such as in the case of Gwen Nowak. His occasional adherence to prescribed gender roles I find myself forgiving when I remember to look at publication dates (and biographical information, as much as I would hate to admit this most of the time) and consider the leaps in sexual politics and gender relations that he does male—wow, Freudian slip—make.

2"My most outlandish tales are the ones most likely to be true—as that is the literal truth. No storyteller has ever been able to dream up anything as fantastically unlikely as what really does happen in this mad Universe" (Time Enough For Love 31, another Heinlein I'll be chatting up in a few posts).