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July 2, 2011

A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman by Margaret Drabble

All right, please forgive me, but I’d like to take the short story off its pedestal for just a moment or two. Not to demean it in any way, but rather to point out the utter banality of proclaiming a writer “a master of the short-story form”. If only because I don’t think there is any such thing as “the short story form”, which is of all forms is probably the most elastic. Think about what Ann Beattie has in common with Alice Munro, I guess. Or closer to home, even Sarah Selecky and Jessica Westhead’s stories are altogether different creatures. There is such diversity in short stories, which is the underlying flaw in any argument against them as a form, but it also means that many of us are sputtering critical banality when we try to talk about them in general.

But then, here is another thing…

Margaret Drabble’s complete short stories A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman were written by a writer who has never been called a master of the short story form, mostly because most people don’t know she ever wrote short stories, because she only wrote a handful of them, and because she had been altogether occupied attempting to become master of the novel instead. (And can I just say that more than most contemporary novelists, she has probably come very close?)

But yet there are stories here which are masterful, because this is Margaret Drabble after all and she is so, so good. So the conclusion I take from this is that the short story form isn’t necessarily one requiring fervent devotion, the way some would like us to think it is– I’m referring to the pedastal. The conclusion is that anyone is capable of writing an excellent short story… as long as anyone happens to be Margaret Drabble.

The stories here, which are organized in chronological order, represent the same kind of trajectory evident in the progression of Drabble’s novels. Early stories are very focussed on the individual, interior and immediate, and were very fashionable in a way that hasn’t aged terribly well (but their quality remains evident). Her middle stories become more political with a strong feminist bent, and then the later ones are concerned with the limits of fiction, with stretching these limits, and also with history, and science and questioning. A reader seeking something conventional from later-Drabble will come away disappointed, but with an understanding of what she is trying (though not always managing) to achieve), the reader can appreciate these works’ greatness.

It is difficult to talk about a collection like this, which represents the work of five decades and was never intended to be discussed as a whole. Except to say that it’s a wonderful overview of (and perhaps introduction to?) Margaret Drabble’s work, and a must-read for any of her devotees. That a few of the early stories have a certain unsteadiness, but then the other assume the assurance of writers who, if she has not necessarily mastered the short-story form, has certainly managed to master the story in general.

May 13, 2019


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January 29, 2019

Big Snow

Today instead of swimming, I shovelled snow; and we took the main streets to school instead of the side ones; and school started fifteen minutes late; and the people were walking and the cars were all buried; and there were sleds in the bike racks. People were outside their houses shovelling, and greeting passers-by; and pedestrians were smiling, and for those of us without mobility issues, it was all kind of beautiful and miraculous, except for climbing over snowbanks. But even that part was its own adventure.

April 30, 2017

A Remarkable Week for Mitzi and Me

As excellent weeks in the life of Mitzi Bytes go, I don’t know if any other will top this one. On Monday, I had the great pleasure of listening to my interview with Shelagh Rogers on The Next Chapter. On Tuesday, in preparation for the 1000 Islands Writers Festival (next weekend!!), I published a post on Mitzi Bytes and ambivalence on the festival blog. On Wednesday, I drove to Waterloo to partake in the Appetite for Reading Book Club event, which was so much fun, totally delicious, and dear friends were there, part of a room packed with avid readers—you can see some of their smiling faces above.

Thursday evening was the thoroughly bonkers and wholly enjoyable Toronto Library Bibliobash, which took place at the Toronto Reference Library, which is one of my favourite places on earth. It was hilarious fun and also a privilege to be able to support the library in such a wonderful way. It was very exciting to see Mitzi Bytes in such a setting…

And the next day I would discover it somewhere just as lovely—in Shawna Lemay’s beautiful response to the book at her blog, Transactions With Beauty.

Saturday was the third Authors for Indies day and I had the pleasure of a road trip with CanLit superstars Kate Hilton, Jennifer Robson, and Karma Brown, who were so much fun and (unsurprisingly) delightfully bookish. We went to Curiosity House Books in Creemore and Forsters Book Garden in Bolton, which was so wonderful because there is nothing I ever love more than a destination bookshop. It was terrific to meet the booksellers and the readers…and of course I bought a few books on my own. There was much raucousness and the snacks were great…

…and I arrived back home in time to listen to the rebroadcast of The Next Chapter with my family! (Happy to see Mitzi Bytes included on “15 books you heard about on CBC Radio this week”!).

One more thing—the new issue of The Hamilton Review of Books is up and it’s really great. And it also includes my review of Marianne Apostolides’ memoir, Deep Salt Water, which was such a joy to puzzle out and write about. I’m very pleased to be included in this issue. And I’m closing out here with a photo of Marissa Stapley and I from my Toronto Library Eh List Event on April 13. Marissa was wonderful and it was such a good night—one of many I’ve been experiencing lately.

December 19, 2016

A Paradise Built in Hell, by Rebecca Solnit

One day in October 2014, a man with a gun entered Canada’s parliament buildings shortly after murdering a Canadian soldier standing guard at the national war memorial. The man with the gun had a history of drug addiction, mental illness, and also pledged allegiance to a terrorist “state.” Thankfully, he was taken down before he hurt anybody else, and afterward there were the usual discussions about religious extremism and one religion in particular. A year later, Canada’s Conservative Party was counting on leveraging fear from this incident and others to win another election. They had been slow in accepting refugees from war-torn Syria anyway (and had taken away healthcare from refugees altogether, in a move that defied both logic and human decency), which made it seem personal to Canadians when the body of a small Syrian chid washed up on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea and was photographed in a devastating, iconic image.

Determined to stay their course all the same and make it clear how they really felt about multiculturalism in general and Islam in particular—or rather to play to the very worst parts of people’s fears, frailties and debased humanity in order to win votes—the Conservatives gambled on a novel concept, a Barbaric Practices Hotline, wherein Canadians could report their neighbours…for suspected cases of genital mutilation, apparently?? (Who ya gonna call?) An idea that was so preposterous that I still can’t believe it really happened, let alone that the public faces of this idea are continuing to walk around in public (encouraging citizens to “lock up” democratically-elected leaders, no less [but just the female ones. Not that gender has anything to do with it.]).

It was utterly bananas. It was…like waking up one morning and discovering that some clown called Donald is President of the United States. And then against all predictions, against the odds, Canadians in huge numbers shot down that shitblimp and the Conservatives were out. Because for a few weeks there, we didn’t recognize the country we lived in. Because it was difficult to imagine the lows these people would stoop to in order to get power (and you have to wonder if it would be worth it. That you’d have to break something so irrecoverably in order to make it yours. What would it be like to triumph in that fight? Where would lie the satisfaction?). The Liberal Party’s victory on October 19, 2015, I thought—nearly a year after that deranged man had broken into Parliament with a gun (and I’m not going to say he “stormed it,” because he was literally one guy with a gun, and that’s not a storm. That’s something weird falling out of the sky)—was not necessarily for the Liberals themselves, but it was against the awfulness that election had brought us. It was Canadians standing up and declaring that this is not who we are. It was all of us being determined to be something better than what the Conservatives had offered, which was a vision of our very worst selves.

These visions are important, as Rebecca Solnit writes in her 2009 book A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster. These visions of who we are, and what we can do, and what we will do. The prevailing view, she writes, of a community in a moment of disaster being that people will panic—riots in the streets, mass slaughter, every man for himself. A vision built on fear, the same way the Canadian Conservative Party erected their 2015 election platform on fear. But what if, Solnit proposes, these perceptions of human nature are wrong? Going back over historical disasters from the last 100 or so years—the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the Halifax Explosion in 1918, the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City, the World Trade Center attacks in 2001, and the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina in 2005—to find a different kind of narrative. A narrative that is actually prevalent and proven in the “disaster studies” field, which is that in moments of crisis, people come together, support each other, and that new communities and ways of being can actually emerge.

Where there is panic, Solnit writes, is in the realm of the elite and bureaucratic. Rigid systems fail, precarious structures crumble, powerful people freak out about the prospect of the populous realizing they’ve got true agency—and it’s here where the chaos comes in. Armed forces were sent into San Francisco in 1906, just as they were in New Orleans in 2005 along with private security firms, and these forces caused huge problems, viewing community members as an enemy, and being completely out of touch with social dynamics. The trouble comes from improperly equipped firefighters charging into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, all the while people in the buildings were facilitating their own evacuation (against official orders, even—many had been told to go back to their desks and wait), carrying disabled colleagues down 69 flights of stairs, proceeding in an orderly fashion, saving so many lives.

In her book, Solnit writes to open our eyes to other possibilities of human nature. That perhaps we can be our best selves, that maybe our best selves are even who we really are. It’s a heartening read at this moment in time when the western world seems intent on its own disaster course, and when populists are preying on our very worst tendencies. At a moment when the fall of the Canadian Conservatives in 2015, along with their racist, divisive platform, seems like an anomalous blip, right-leaning, xenophobic politics creeping into the mainstream—or one might even say “storming.” When the very people who touted the Barbaric Practices Hotline are not lying low in abject shame, as one might expect, but are gunning for leadership of the Canadian Conservative Party, the saddest, most dispiriting, race-t0-the-bottom-ish contest I’ve seen since, well, Ted Cruz was knocked off his weirdo throne or that smarmy fucker Nigel Farage quit the UKIP in triumph.

It’s easy to play these kinds of politics. I mean, not from a moral point of view (how do these people sleep at night?), but it really doesn’t take a lot of effort to put a bunch of people together and encourage them to be angry and full of hate. Because, as Solnit writes in her book, our most basic tendencies are perhaps a yearning to belong to something and to each other. We want a sense of purpose, a reason. I was one of thousands and thousands of people around the world who, on September 11 2001, lined up for ages—for nothing, it would turn out, but still—at a blood donor clinic. We wanted to do something. It’s the reason so many Canadians have donated time and money for the past year to support the tens of thousands of Syrian refugees who began to arrive in Canada shortly after the Liberals took office—my friends and neighbours have been a part of these efforts, my mom has, Canadians in towns small and large, in communities already multicultural or otherwise. It’s the reason why, when I came across a small car accident the other week, before emergency services had arrived, passerbys were supporting the cars’ occupants, employees from the coffee shop on the corner had brought out chairs and food and water, and I stood there entirely superfluous and wanting to be a part of it, a bit sad to realize I didn’t have to be—my neighbours and fellow citizens had it covered.

There were also people walking by snapping photos on their phones. This was morbid and weird and kind of terrible, but there are always going to be people like this, people who are self-serving, messing stuff up, playing the system. Caitlin Moran writes about this in her new book, about how there are always going to be people who play the system, that this is who people are just as much as the helpers, but this is no reason to tear down institutions altogether. If we wrecked all the systems that people had cheated, where would that leave the parliament of any country in the world, or the Catholic Church for that matter? See also Solnit on “looting” (when black people do it) and “requisitioning of goods” (when white people do it) and the efforts that were devoted to protect things and property in New Orleans in 2005, sacrificing actual people’s lives. All of which is to say that these things are complicated, and nuanced, and it’s much easier to stand before a group of people and smirk and wave as they start chanting LOCK HER UP.

It’s all the same impulse though, the same yearning for connection and meaning. And I take heart in this. The impulse is there, and what if we can “leverage” that, then we can all be better. And how to make that happen? Solnit writes about increasing community connections, investing in social capital, enabling community infrastructure that permits people to share spaces and things, to congregate, to create a vital public life. It’s about giving people opportunities work together, to know each other, and to be empowered to create their own solutions to local problems. Governments can take heed of this, I think, and invest in these kinds of initiatives to bring people together instead of divide them. And on the individual level, all of us can be empowered already with an understanding of the roles we can play—it’s making eye contact and smiling at people in the street, saying hello your neighbour, leaving a holiday gift for your letter carrier, making friends at the park, using the library, supporting community-minded businesses in your neighbourhood. By being the change you wish to see in the world.

October 25, 2016

The Little Communist Who Never Smiled, by Lola Lafon

On the surface, Lola Lafon’s novel The Little Communist Who Never Smiled (translated from French by Nick Caistor) is a fictionalization of the life of Nadia Comaneci, but that (of course) is just a cover. What the book is really about is messaged in between the lines (or, quite literally, between the words). The Little Communist… is a book about the Cold War, the politicization of sport and womanhood, about deciphering codes and, fundamentally, this is a novel about punctuation.

the-little-communistThe book begins with Nadia’s performance on the uneven bars at the Montreal Olympics in 1976. (I call her Nadia. Everybody did. I wasn’t born until 1979, but I came into a world where girls were still gymnastics-mad and it occurs to me that gymnasts from that time are the only Olympic athletes I’m familiar with who aren’t from my country. From a very young age, I knew who Nadia Comaneci was.)

Her victory hung on point of punctuation, kind of—a decimal. Her score of 10.0 had never been achieved in gymnastics before and therefore the display screen didn’t have the capacity to show it. Lafon shows the confusion and crisis and judges and administrators realized what had happened and the scoreboard read 1.0, and the implications of this—this was an athlete from whom an entirely different system of success would be designed. “New numbers need to be invented. Or just abandon numbers altogether.”

On page 18, Lafon describes Comaneci: “Her arched back is a comma.” Which is significant because of how conspicuous commas are in the text. Comma splices are scattered throughout the novel, and I had to consider their implication, what they do to sentences. How in English they join unlike ideas in slightly jarring ways that makes the reader think twice, and it made me think about Romania in the 1970s and 1980s, a point in between the Cold War divides of East and West. Later in the book, Lafon shows Comaneci delivering an address in 1984 to announce her retirement from competition, an address that was written for her by the writer who composes all her official speeches: “He writes them out in short lines with commas so that she can pause for breath between them.” But in this address there are no commas. “She had not planned to be silent for so long she is simply searching for the comma, she thought she saw it but there wasn’t one, her words are chosen for her one last time, the comma jumps from one word to the next, like the decimal point: one point nought nought, she raises her eyes to those who have no words…”

The echo of the uneven bars creaking at the Montreal Olympics is “an uneven punctuation for her body as it folds itself around them.” Periods are replaced in between the letters of rival Olga Korbut’s first name in a Man From U.N.C.L.E.-like Cold War allusion (O.L.G.A). In her imagined exchanges with Comaneci, Lafon considers the punctuation used in newspaper coverage about Comaneci, “exclamation marks that compete with the ellipses.” There are references to the story of Nadia being written, rewritten (and indeed they are in Lafon’s imagined exchanges, which cast doubt on everything represented by facts. Truth is nowhere. Everything is suspicious.) and defying translation.

And then there is the period, the decimal point in another form. Full stop. Also menstruation (which I don’t think shares its name with a punctuation mark in the novel’s original French, interestingly, although apparently the French term for menstruation means “rules,” so it’s equally firm), which is hugely significant in this text. The arrival of the period signals the beginning of the end of Comaneci’s career, no matter her coach’s and manager’s efforts to stymy the effects of puberty through training and pharmaceuticals. But in the context of Romanian history, it has wider and more disturbing ramifications regarding forced pregnancy tests women were submitted to to eliminate instances of abortion, the way that not only Nadia had her body regarded as property of the state. And really, this sense of ownership over women’s bodies is a universal thing—anyone else who’s not an Olympic gymnast ever been chastised for not smiling?

And yet Lafon avoids obvious and facile comparisons with East and West with her imagined dialogue with Comaneci, who questions the ways in which women and athletes in the West are necessarily more free. While never minimizing the negative effects of life under the Ceaușescu regime, Lafon complicates notions that here and now is necessarily better than then and there. While Romanian people had nothing during the 1980s, Lafon is reminded in imagined conversations that sometimes nothing is better than insatiable materialist desires. All this so that we’re left with a notion of history and truth that is as elusive as Nadia herself, always just slipping out of one’s grasp.

“You quietly airbrushed your mistakes…could we say that?”

“Yes, exactly. I rewrite everything! But….discreetly.” 

Thank you for the International Festival of Authors for inviting me to be a part of your blog tour and giving me the opportunity to read this truly excellent book. 

Lola Lafon’s appearances at Toronto’s 2016 International Festival of Authors
(Supported by the Consulate General of France):
Monday October 24 8pm “Interpreting the Past” (Reading/Round Table)
Wednesday October 26 6pm “EUNIC: Writing History Telling Stories” (Reading/Round Table)


February 19, 2016

Dragonfly Kites, by Tomson Highway and Julie Flett


Just a week after bringing you a review of My Heart Fills With Happiness, by Monique Gray Smith and Julie Flett, I’m pleased to bring you another beautiful book illustrated by Flett. This one is Dragonfly Kites, written by Tomson Highway, who’s best known for his plays and works for adults (The Rez Sisters, Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing, Kiss of the Fur Queen).


Like Flett’s illustrations, Highway’s story is gorgeous and simple. It features Cody and Joe, who appeared in his previous picture book, Caribou Song (and there is another in the works in this planned trilogy). The boys live with their parents in Northern Manitoba where there are so many lakes they’ve never stayed on the same one twice, and there are “islands and forests and beaches and clear water But no people.”


In this landscape, the boys make their own play, collecting sticks and giving them names, making up stories about the characters they become. (As we read this, I asked my city-dwelling children, “Do we know anybody who’d ever play a game like that?” and they both nodded, smiling at me.)

The story gives Flett the opportunity to do what she does best (and what she’s made a reputation for in books like Dolphin SOS, Wild Berries and Little You): beautiful scenes set in nature, highlighted with bright prints and patterns. Her talent shines in particular with her renderings of the dragon flies of the book’s title, with the gorgeous intricacies of their wings.


Joe and Cody name and play with many animals they encounter in the wild, but the dragonflies are their favourite. They catch the dragonflies in nets and tie threads around their middles, holding the strings with the dragonflies flying like kites. Which is the point at which the book really takes flight, and I’ll own up to googling “dragonfly kites” to find out if this is really something people do, and I don’t think it actually is, but that Highway made me wonder is a testament to this book’s magic. The dragonflies’ flight continuing long after the boys are tucked into bed at night, continuing on in their dreams, and now they’re soaring high with the insects, into the sunset, straight on until morning.


“That was a good one,” said Harriet when the story was over, the flight was done.

December 18, 2013

Six Months in, four years later

“My mother didn’t tell me much about motherhood, it’s true. She said she couldn’t remember. None of you ever cried, she said vaguely, and then added that she might have got that wrong.” –Rachel Cusk, A Life’s Work

If I hadn’t written it down, I don’t think I would remember the blurry despair of Harriet’s early days. And even having written it down, the images are fractured. (Joan Didion: “You see I still have the scenes, but I no longer perceive myself among those present, no longer could even improvise the dialogue.”) For a while I’ve supposed that it was really not so bad, and that my tendency to dwell (through writing in particular) had magnified the difficulty and my impressions of my own unhappiness. I have thought this especially since Iris came along and we’ve been weathering all the usual bumps in the road. (“Oh yes, this is why we never wanted to have another baby,” we remembered the other night when once again Iris refused to go to sleep, which, while we meant it, was delivered cheerfully, as a joke.)

The must wonderful and terrible thing about having a blog are its archives. They are, quoting Didion again, “Paid passage back to the world out there.” Sometimes the passage is treacherous though, embarrassing, agonizing, that one person (myself!) could have been so stupid. But it is ever illuminating, these glimpses that remind one to keep in mind the unreliability of memory, the mutability of self.

I remembering telling someone that it was not until around seven months in to Harriet’s life that I was happy in our day-to-day life. (This is important. I am someone who is accustomed to being happy in my day-to-day life.) As time I went on, I started to doubt that this had really been the case, particularly because of how easy Iris has fitted into my life, how much I’m enjoying these days which are mostly spent with her napping on me while I read and write. Surely, I thought to myself, it couldn’t have gone on that long. There are photographs of us smiling. I have excellent memories of wonderful days.

But then I went back recently to read my archives about Harriet at six months, curiosity occasioned by Iris having just reached this milestone. There is a picture of me halfway up a ladder at a bookshop, and I so vividly remembered that day. Stuart had taken the day off and his company was so welcome, and I remembering feeling so fat, horrible, and tired, none of which I mentioned in the post (and I remember feeling quite surprised in fact when the photo wasn’t terrible). It was shocking to me that this had been six months along–I’d remembered it being so much sooner. But then time moved a whole lot slower then.

And then my post about Harriet at six-months, which was useful because it reminded me of her Baby Self who is now lost to us entirely (who sucked on her toes, loved the chicken puppet and had eaten the shopping list the week before).

This was followed by: ” It’s so hard. And I don’t think it ever gets easy, but it gets easier. And then harder too, of course, in all new ways, but the whole thing is also totally worth it in a way I’m really beginning to understand now. Only beginning to, though, because it’s an understanding I can’t articulate or even make sense of to myself, and it’s more a steady current inside of me than a feeling at all./ She is delightful, and fascinating, and amazing, and I can’t remember a world in which Harriet was not the centre. Which is not to say that sometimes I don’t wish for a different focus for a little while, but it would always comes back to her anyway. It always does. And it will forever, but how could it not?”

Confession: I now have no idea what I was talking about. Partly because the writing isn’t terribly clear or good, but mostly because “I no longer perceive myself among those present” in these scenes. Who was that woman anyway? Certainly nobody I’ve ever been.

Isn’t it funny that we persist in imagining time as a line, one thing after another, a cumulation. When it is something else entirely, and only the “now” is ever-present, the past itself gone with a poof out behind us and salvaged sometimes when made into a story.

November 10, 2013

The Other Side of Youth by Kelli Deeth

the-other-side-of-youthI think that most of us in our 30s will see ourselves somewhere in Kelli Deeth’s short story collection The Other Side of Youth. For me, it was this passage from “Something Happy”:

“I have your grandmother’s china for you,” her mother said. “She took good care of it.”

“I don’t really have room for it,” Carmen said. She suddenly saw her grandmother’s hands–solid and covered in age spots.

“But you will,” her mother said. Carmen heard a strain in her mother’s voice, but when Carmen looked, her mother was not exactly smiling, but looking up and off at something pleasant only she could see.

It reminds me of a conversation my mother and I have had a million times, and all the grandmothers’ china I don’t have room for in my apartment, never mind that I’ve never had china of my own. And that I’ll probably never own a house ever, which would come with a basement I could put the china in until it came time to pass it on to my own daughter to keep in a box and never use.

This passage also reminds me of the woman in Joan Didion’s “On Keeping a Notebook” whose husband was born the night the Titanic went down, the woman who told Didion that someday she’d be able to afford a house that code $1000 a month. “Someday you will,” she said lazily. “Someday it all comes.”

And Kelli Deeth’s book is about all the ways that it doesn’t, how those inevitable things like basements, china and having babies can go amiss. The final point in particular, which I thought was this book’s most remarkable feature. Just as we’re lately doing a terrific job exploring the many facets and varying experiences of motherhood, so too does Deeth show that not having children is a land of many stories and different experiences. Her characters are childless by choice or otherwise, ambivalent or despairing, looking toward adopting, desperately trying to hold onto high-risk pregnancies, trying to process the emotional pain and trauma of miscarriage, trying to maintain relationships under such circumstances.

A few of these stories are about young women, gritty stories about innocence lost too soon (and isn’t it always too soon)? In those stories of women in their 30s, on “the other side of youth,” Deeth shows that loss of innocence can be just as devastating, illusions only now being shed about what life gives and takes away.

These are dark stories, and yet there glimmers spots of hope and moments of illumination. Lives in pieces may seem like shards, but there is fascinating texture to so many edges.

July 1, 2013

The Flame Throwers by Rachel Kushner


“A funny thing about woman and machines: the combination made men curious.”

I do wonder if one day there will be a literary genre distinguished by its treatment of women whose broken dreams are symbolized by their dissatisfaction with their kitchen renovations. I noticed this first in Arlington Park by Rachel Cusk, whose middle-class preoccupations were redeemed by Cusk’s Woolfian narrative, and then recently in Krista Bridge’s The Eliot Girls which was more Picoultian than Woolfian and left me frustrated with narrative in general. And so I turned to Rachel Kushner’s The Flame Throwers next, because it promised to be not Picoultian in the slightest and featured a female protagonist who never went into the kitchen at all.

Though to call her a “protagonist” is not entirely accurate, because Kushner’s narrator is more of an observer, and a cypher than one who the story happens to. We get a sense of her internal monologue, but not of her self–we don’t even know her name. (I am careful not to refer to her as “Reno” [um, for the city, not the abbreviation for “renovation”] though she is referred to as such in the book’s copy. But in an interview, Kushner remarks, “Twice, she’s referred to as Reno, and so reviewers have latched onto this.” And I don’t want Kushner to think that I am a latcher. Never.) This is a novel about motorcycles, motor racing, rubber manufacturing, Fascism and terrorism, which is the kind of novel that generally wouldn’t appeal to me, except that it’s also the book that everybody is talking about and for once I wanted to get in on that action. Plus, it’s a novel about all of these things from the point of view of a female character, and I was curious about that. And so I picked up The Flame Throwers, and perhaps I’ve got a thing for speed and crashes after all because I was hooked by page 21 with the story of a legendary American racer whose parachute failed and had to stop from 522 miles per hour on the salt flats of Utah.

Of course, to call Kushner’s character an “observer” is disingenuous, because while the novel doesn’t happen to her, her voice and perspective are certainly key to its construction. She has more agency than we can really understand. The story begins with Kushner’s character on the salt flats in 1977, riding her Valera motorcycle (which had come from her boyfriend back in New York, Sandro Valera, the estranged heir to the Italian motorcycle/tire manufacturing fortune). Her aim is to race her bike, and also to photograph other races. She is an artist, we learn, who has moved from Reno to New York where she met Sandro. Her racing plans are curtailed by an accident, however, and she, previously the lone wolf, ends up with the Valera racing team by virtue of her motorcycle’s make. She ends up setting a world record for female drivers in the Valera car, the Spirit of Italy, and a scheme is concocted wherein she will travel to Italy on the coattails of her racing fame.

And then the narrative takes us to New York nearly two years before, the girl from Reno arriving in the city to make herself (though we learn a few peculiar details to suggest she’s not entirely formless–she’d been a success as a ski racer years before, and once acted in a McDonalds commercial. She grew up in a household with two motorbike-mad cousins, and an uncle who watched TV in the nude. And even the most mundane detail begins to seem conspicuous because there are so few of them). She tells us, “I thought this was how artists moved to New York, alone, that the city was a mecca of individual points, longings, all merging into one great light-pulsing mesh and you simply found your pulse, your place.” But she fails to, remaining estranged from the city itself, from its art scene. She is young and naive, and through a cast of eccentric characters (“I once went to a house in the Hollywood Hills that was a glass dome on a pole, its elevator shaft. Belonged to a pervert bachelor and he had peepholes everywhere. He was watching me in the toilet. Some guy drugged me without asking first. Angel dust. I was on roller skates which presented a whole extra challenge.”) she meets artist Ronnie Fontaine, and falls in love with his best friend, Sandro Valera. She makes her place on the scene as Sandro’s girl, but overrides him when he resists the idea of her trip to Italy.

In chapters involving Sandro’s father, we learn the sordid details of how he made his fortune and these suggest just why Sandro is so uncomfortable with returning to Italy and why he is determined to remain distanced from his family heritage. When the trip finally happens, it is the disaster he predicted, as Sandro’s mother shows disdain for his American girl, and the whole family is troubled by political uprisings by their factory workers, which were part of a movement sweeping the country in 1977. And finally, our character is faced with the truth about her boyfriend’s intentions toward her, and in an instant she makes a decision that embroils her in Italy’s underground radical social movement.

Kushner’s prose thrums with a Didion-esque rhythm, and her narrative concerns read like a combination of “Good-Bye to All That” and “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”. Her sense of time and place is stunningly evoked, and while details waver in a few places, the overall impression is of remarkable realization. There is a reason everyone is talking about this book, and that’s because it’s a great American novel in the grand tradition but as rendered by a female hand, but then this novel with all its masculine concerns is a treatment of the feminine as well. What is the place of Kushner’s female character in this kind of story? Is she the I or just the eye? Does anybody hear her voice beyond us, the reader? We hear her, but what are the impressions of those who can see her? In a way, she is as invisible as the “China Girl” appearing among the first frames of movie film, ever present but anonymous and glimpsed by almost no one. Is this the extent of possibility for the woman artist? (“You’re not supposed to evoke real life. Just the hermetic world of a smiling woman holding a colour chart.”)

So much of this book’s impact comes from its evasive approach, which is summed up in its final sentence: “Leave, with no answer. Move on to the next question.” And that’s why so many people are talking about this book–because it’s a difficult one from which to draw tidy conclusions.


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