Saturday, January 2, 2016

9th Canadian Challenge - 13th Review - Arvida

I'll just start off by saying I didn't like this collection at all (Arvida by Samuel Archibald).  While I often am a bit out of sync with the prevailing tastes, it was really shocking to me that this was nominated for and was a finalist for the Giller Prize.  I just can't see it, since I found the stories either unmemorable or unpleasant.  If you want to read a bit further into why I gave this book a big thumbs down, feel free to continue, though be aware that there will be SPOILERS ahead.

Il y a des SPOILERS partout...

I hate to be too cynical about it, but I think at least some of the hype comes from people not expecting a Francophone author to indulge in horror-lite.  (It is much less surprising that the author or at least the narrator is a bit obsessed with Proust.  Nor is it that surprising that given my negative experience with Proust, I felt this was already one strike against the collection.  However, the stories are generally short, as is the overall collection, so the writing is not at all Proustian other than there are some memory-pieces about growing up in Arvida, Quebec.)  In general, it is odd for any Canadian author to move away from the cliches of Can Lit: earnest immigrants, growing understanding of and wonder at nature, more civility than the dreaded Americans, etc.  Being from Quebec and writing such non-PC stories gets him extra bonus points.  (Incidentally, it is perhaps not a surprise that many of the most negative reviews on Goodreads are from French readers, who aren't conceding Archibald those bonus points.)

Of the entire book, the most tolerable stories were two stories about incompetent criminals -- not even full-blooded criminals but people willing to commit minor larceny or smuggling or running gambling rings.  One of the things that fiction sometimes gets right, but the movies rarely do is that most criminals aren't masterminds.  They are generally a bit thick and lazy.  This is particularly true in small towns, such as Arvida.  Anyway, in "América," two guys get asked to smuggle this woman over the U.S. border so that she can rejoin her lover in L.A.  They ask for a low sum of money, most of which is blown by a third guy they bring on board at the last minute to help them drive.  They make a number of other bad decisions, most notably trying to cross at Windsor rather than at one of the points where New York and Quebec touch, where at least they probably would have found a French-speaking border agent.  The woman of course is inadmissible, and then when they eventually try to put her on a plane back to Costa Rica, but she has vanished (apparently having more street smarts than the two guys).  Even this story is a bit spoiled by the heavy handed coda, where one of the guys says that a friend wants to make this story into a movie, and needed a name for the woman.  "Just call her América.  That's all she had to say, anyway."  Ba-dum-bump.

The second one is called "The Last-Born," and starts off a bit contentiously by saying that the last children in all the households of Arvida are spoiled somehow because they were all born of mothers who should have stopped having children at 38 or so, but "whose husbands and priests never gave them any peace as long as there was one egg left in their innards."  Anyway, two of these misfits run into each other and manage to talk themselves into a bit of a pickle: one has offered to kill a bookie for the princely sum of $2000 and the other one can't quite see how to back down and still maintain his image of himself as a tough guy.  Neither really wants to go through with it, but their credibility is on the line.  Let's just say things don't go according to plan.  This was probably the best story from the collection.

There was also a decent five page description of a pick-up hockey game between former Canadiens and the local boys that was amusing.  This was in the middle of "The Centre of Leisure and Forgetfulness."  The game may or may not have occurred, as other parts of this piece are non-fictional.*  This interview suggests that the hockey game is fictional, but, sadly, the incest that is at the heart of several stories, particularly "The Animal" was real.

It's very difficult to critique anything related to incest for all kinds of reasons, but I have to say that it was handled extremely clumsily in "The Animal," since the story was for all intents and purposes over, when suddenly Archibald adds a few more pages where some "demon" comes and molests the two sisters.  WTF?  Either integrate this in properly or drop it.

I was basically bored by the other stories.  There is so much casual racism and sexism permeating these stories that they are all hard to take.  "House Bound" is particularly dreary, as it takes us inside the mind of a very coarse (and alcoholic) contractor whose marriage falls apart as he rebuilds a run-down family mansion that he has bought.  He is so far gone that one night in an alcoholic rage he kills his annoying yappy dog and tosses it in a ravine.  Even though his daughter adds this to her list of reasons she thinks the house is haunted, he refuses to reveal the truth.  (I suppose I wouldn't either, but I certainly resented being asked to show some understanding and perhaps even sympathy for a dog-killer.)

However, I actually stopped reading "Jigai," as it is literally torture-porn.

I would never have liked this collection in any case, but the decision to include this story basically enraged me.  It isn't edgy -- it's just the same woman-hating crap in a different format -- and getting a lot of undue and undeserved praise.

I know it is hard to separate an author from his or her characters, but Archibald's latest project is about a serial killer that was active in Saguenay in the 90s.  It is possible he means Roch Thériault, though he was more of a horrifying cult leader than a true serial killer.  I don't know whether it is preferable that Archibald is doing a true crime story or is just inventing it (obviously it is better if the victims are imaginary), but at a certain point you have to ask yourself what is it about a writer who just can't get away from writing about violence against women -- and dressing it up as literature.  I know I will steer far away from his work in the future.

* With footnotes even!

P.S. I'm kind of sad that I will close out the 13 books for the 9th Canadian Challenge with a book I so strongly disliked, but on the positive side, this is definitely the fastest I got to 13 reviews.  Generally, I get to that mark by February (and one time May!), though I see that for the 6th Challenge, I wrote my review of Underwater Welder on Jan 25.  I didn't much care for that book either, so it looks like review 13 is often a downer.  The more positive reviews have been poetry collections, and perhaps I should have flipped Arvida and Ossuaries, which I did enjoy.  Anyway, I have two more Canadian books coming up soon, and I should have those reviews in by the end of Jan. or very early Feb.  It is a little hard to predict how the rest of the challenge will go, though I wouldn't be too surprised if I end up getting to 20 reviews by June.  If I am close enough, I'll try to rearrange the list so as to end this challenge with Paul Quarrington's Whale Music.  I have some very tentative ideas of what I might do to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Canadian Challenge, but that is really getting a bit ahead of myself...

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