Sunday, October 11, 2015

9th Canadian Challenge - 7th Review - Confidence

The stories in Russell Smith's Confidence generally strike me as revolving around Gen Xers* trying to keep up with Gen Y (the Millennials) and not coming across very well. The kind of person who is shallow enough to want to date or do drugs with someone 15-20 years younger than himself (or herself, but mostly himself in this collection) ends up looking particularly ridiculous. While Peter Pan never had to face growing up, the rest of us do, and apparently those of us who weren't the cool kids are better off when we hit our 40s than those who were (since we aren't always trying to relive "glory days" that ended slightly after we got over acne and braces...). That seems to be the subtext, or at least my spin, on Russell Smith's collection. Though I suppose that is also the starting point of the Simon Pegg movie The World's End.


This subtext definitely comes to the fore in the story "TXTS" where a man ends up blowing a date because he keeps responding to texts (from a wrong number!). His date, who is younger, is not at all impressed, even though she had been initially somewhat interested in this man. An added ironic twist is that she keeps her own blog of all the dates she goes on, and he is appropriately skewered. Though to a certain extent people who live life storing up anecdotes for blogs are distanced from life in another way (almost living it second-hand), though not nearly so obviously as those who won't put away their phones during a date. The final twist to the story is that the man is really pining away for another woman (much closer to his own age) and he emails her later (since he is a serious person and serious people do not woo via texts).  She responds: "Leo, you've never got this.  But arguing, or writing long letters, doesn't change anybody's feelings."  This is definitely a fair point, that highly verbal people like myself have to learn through long experience.  There may be a very small number of people who can be wooed through letters and emails but that is a relatively select group.

One of the secondary characters in "Raccoons" has a blog as well, though the main story is about a husband being hounded (via texts naturally) by an ex-lover.  This story features a shout-out to Rob Ford and his crack cocaine habit (in the early days of the scandal before the video turned up), and the main character actually hopes that the video is not found "for he felt sorry for the guy, an obese guy with enough stress in his life who had just wanted to do something fun for once ... far away from his suburban house and his family."  Of course, he is very much projecting, since his own family will be quite threatened (a la Fatal Attraction) if his indiscretions come to light, and it appears that they just might.  There is certainly much to be said about not throwing stones in glass houses, but there are some limits.  I would certainly draw the line at crack cocaine, and that a mayor that has that many demons ought to resign and deal with them in private...

I've recently been thinking about how most writers only deal with one or two social groups in a novel.  That may be because it is so drilled into so many writers that you should only write about what you know, or at least that they are in their comfort zone if they just stick to one or two social groups.  A daring writing may tackle all kinds of social worlds, or have them collide, and this sometimes works or sometimes comes off very badly (or really the same work can be received very differently by different readers, based on whether the reader agrees with the portrayal of a specific group or if the writer "has got it wrong" somehow).  In general, Russell Smith is sticking to a fairly narrow range -- artists, writers and their patrons (apparently entirely from Toronto's banking community).

There is one major exception to this in the story "Gentrification," where a youngish couple has bought a house (or more likely a semi-detached house) that comes with a rental space in the basement.  They have moved into a neighbourhood that is slowly gentrifying but not fast enough for the woman's taste.  Anyway, the man, Tracy, is an environmental activist who would much rather be a photographer.  He has some success with cheesecake shots of his partner, Morgan (posting them on the internet naturally).  She's getting a bit tired of posing for him, and later in the story, Tracy is debating paying some of the young women in the neighbourhood to pose for him, since they have an exoticism he finds erotic (and assumes, probably accurately, that would translate into success on the internet).

There is trouble with the tenants downstairs.  The tenants are two Black women (it is assumed that they are a lesbian couple), who are fighting all the time.  Tracy actually does call the police a couple of times, but since they quiet down right away, the police leave with just a warning.  Tracy and Morgan are sure that they hear a baby crying as well, and consider setting up another visit from the police.  The noise gets to the point where it prevents the couple from having sex (Morgan wants a baby very badly), and this raises the stakes further. For a little while, the story seems to be veering sort of in a Rear Window or even Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? direction.  Tracy does summon up his courage to go talk to the tenants (and for people who are conflict-averse, this really can be quite difficult to get personally involved, as I remember from my brief stint as a landlord).  What happens is disconcerting and creepy.  Only one of the women is at home and she basically propositions him to become a Sugar Daddy, which is sort of amusing from the outside, since this man is in no position to support a mistress, though I suppose he looks like a winner, relative to her class position.  This definitely turns him on, though he has no opportunity to act on it, since the tenants mess up the apartment, then leave in the middle of the night.  Despite the inconvenience, the couple is glad that they don't actually have to keep calling the police or attempt to evict them.  While it goes unstated, it is fairly clear that they hope that the neighbourhood has gentrified enough that the next set of tenants will be more appropriate (i.e. closer to them in status and behaviour).  While it is just my gut feeling, I have the sense that Smith dislikes the male character, Tracy, more than any of the others he has written about, since he is kind of creepy and a hypocrite.  (Leaving aside the hypocrisy, I knew someone once sort of like Tracy who rented out apartments in Newark, NJ, and more than once had a little thing on the side with some of his female tenants.)

I'll close with some thoughts on the title story, "Confidence."  This is basically a story about how different people position themselves in a social setting, here a dining club.  It functions essentially as a bar, but there are some vague membership requirements, though they still seem to let in a few struggling artists.  Lionel is a writer who has had some success, but now mostly writes short pieces for the newspapers and is probably squandering his talent.  He certainly seems to be a stand-in for Russell Smith, though maybe I am reading too much into this.  He is not a member of the club, but has been brought there by Jackie, who is a successful wheeler/dealer, who has at least some deals going on in the theatre world.  He actually wants Lionel to help drive some buzz his way for his latest production (which sounds a bit like Stomp).  Lionel relaxes when he realizes that the "ask" is relatively minor, though he still gets swept up in Jackie's orbit for the night, abandoning his partner at home and ultimately refusing to answer her calls.  He'll probably pay for that later on... 

The story also focuses on two younger women who are smart, but seem to be a bit desperate to hook up with some of the shallow but financially successful younger club members.  It doesn't look like they will succeed on this night, however.  Nonetheless, Jennifer (the prettier one) still snubs a writer, Robert Henninger, who is interested in her.  She says, fairly bluntly, "I don't have time, any more.  For sensitive boys."  As a bit of a coda, there is an even younger writer there, who can't quite believe that Robert doesn't even recognize him, since Robert was his TA at York (though Russell doesn't spell out how many years ago and how large the class was).  I think Russell is mostly showing how people get wrapped up in their own issues and aren't really that interested in other people.  He also is spelling out that people with more self-confidence get what they want far more often than people who lack this confidence.  Not ground-breaking stuff, but still an interesting story.

Those are the four stories (of 8) that stood out the most.  Russell Smith sort of strikes me as one of those sentimentalists who has been bruised in the past and now covers up his feelings with cynicism and a certain distancing effects.  Of course, I could be completely wrong.  He certainly does posit that life doesn't come with conventional happy endings -- disappointment with life is pervasive.  (In this, he does remind me a lot of the jaded New York writers like McInerney and Ellis.)  I think most people who follow the Canadian literary scene know that Russell Smith has lost much of his vision and consequently is no longer a party animal (see Blindsided).  I'm not entirely sure I am ready to read that.  I am much more likely to tackle Muriella Pent, a novel with a caustic bent that is supposedly in the tradition of Evelyn Waugh.  At least some critics feel that Muriella Pent is his finest work, not as flashy as How Insensitive or Noise, but deeper, with characters that are more rounded, though still somewhat ridiculous.  I'll weigh in later, though it might well be 2016 or even 2017 before I have the chance.

* As it turns out, Russell Smith was born in 1963 and thus is at the upper end of Gen X, but still has more in common with Gen X than the boomers. Delving a bit deeper into his history, it turns out that he has a long history of casting a wearied eye over the artistic world of Toronto and particularly the writers and showing them still indulging in drugs and behaviours that are perhaps best left to the twenty-somethings.  (There is even a bit of that in Findley's Headhunter, but it is not a major theme of that overstuffed book.)  This review focuses almost entirely on the title story, but it led me to another link that makes it evident that "Raccoons" is essentially a roman a clef (or short story a clef) in that Russell Smith lives with another writer/blogger, Jowita Bydlowska.  They were both struggling with addiction issues and infidelity during the first years of their son's life.  They've both put their very personal struggles into print, and may well regret it some day (as I imagine Sharon Olds does from time to time).  I can tell I wouldn't want to get close to either of them, but Russell Smith is more amusing and that makes him marginally more acceptable.

Russell Smith also seems to understand that this chasing after youth culture is ridiculous.  He still does it but is fairly cutting when he writes about these characters.  I'm actually mostly finished with Jay McInerney's Bright Lights Big City (reading this for the first time -- what can I say, I've been preoccupied with other things) and most of the things that our narrator gets up to are kind of shady and he is shallow, but his youth partially compensates for this, whereas the main characters in Smith's "Fun Girls" or "Raccoons" really ought to know better.  I suppose this comes across as finger-wagging, and it's not that I expect straight-laced characters in fiction, or it would be boring indeed, but it is true that I can't relate to characters whose flaws revolve around illegal pastimes better left to the Millennials.

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