Saturday, January 30, 2016

9th Canadian Challenge - 14th Review - The Age

There is a lot going on in Nancy Lee's The Age, which is a Vancouver-based book, though it isn't until towards the end that Lee gets specific about the location of places when she writes about a march for peace through the downtown where things gets a bit out of hand.  Part of my resistance throughout the book is that I basically didn't feel that this was really about Vancouver, but Vancouver standing in for a random U.S. city, as it does so often nowadays in the movies (though it certainly didn't back in 1987 or so which is the time in which the book is set*).  There were a number of things that just didn't feel authentic to me, though I must admit I wasn't even thinking of visiting Vancouver until the mid 90s (and I hadn't visited Seattle either).  I wasn't all that taken with the main character, Gerry.  I understand she was written as an attention-starved adolescent who makes a number of bad decisions along the way in search of love and other human contact, but I really never warmed up to her.  Despite that, this is a compelling story (though it did feel like a novel that was written with at least one eye towards turning it into a screenplay...).  However, I had some serious misgivings about the ending (or rather multiple resolutions), which I will get to after the obligatory SPOILER warnings.  If I was rating on a 5-star system (which I basically never do), I would go with 3.5 stars.  Had Lee stuck the landing, as it were, I would have gone up to 4.  So that's sort of a weak positive recommendation, but you may feel my objections are too picky, so I will explain my reasoning.

To really dig into this book, I have to reveal the ending, so truly don't read on if SPOILERS bother you.

SPOILERS (last warning)

As others have noted, this is a novel where parent are absent, either physically, mentally, emotionally or some combination of all three.  I'm not going back to check, but I believe that neither of Gerry's parents is named, though other parents are named.

Gerry's problems all seem to arise from her feelings of rejection that her father has divorced her mother, moved to California, started a new family and broken off all contact with Gerry.   It is hard to imagine a more terrible move by a parent.  Towards the very end of the novel when Gerry is recovering from a suicide attempt, her mother begs Gerry's father (on the phone) to come and see his daughter and he basically puts her off and says "Later."  Even if his guilt and resentment over being dragged back into a situation he had left (and then probably doubling down on guilt) were coming to a head, how could you abandon a child in that much need?  It is unfathomable to me.  I'm sure there are such people in the world, but I didn't really like having my nose rubbed in it.

Second, there is a touchy yet a bit easy (cheap and easy?) scene where Gerry's mother says that she wasn't "stuck" with Gerry, she fought to keep her (frankly, this seems untrue given what we overhear on the phone conversation with Gerry's father but so be it).  Gerry finally feels sufficiently loved and starts to re-evaluate her relationship with her mother.  I mean really?  Gerry's mother is a bit of a pill (mostly due to stress from over-working) but she regularly showed Gerry affection throughout the novel, and Gerry mostly parried it or rejected these overtures in the ways that teenagers do (that is so infuriating to their parents).  Frankly, I didn't think Lee had structured the novel well enough to earn this scene.  So that was an issue I had with the book.

We only meet the parents of Gerry's best friend Ian once or twice.  They are mostly pleasant ciphers, though the mother's pot growing business explains why Ian is a pothead, who makes questionable decisions throughout the novel.  Ian is a few years old than Gerry, and she has the hots for him, though he sees her as a kid sister.  In fact, he frequently points out that he used to babysit her, though he is dating Lark (a girl basically Gerry's age) as well as fooling around with Megan, one of the radicals.

Megan lives with her basically comatose father, Clem.  He is an old school radical (I guess from the Weathermen era, though he seems to have more in common with the Wobblies), but did a long stint in prison and never really recovered.  Megan is one of a new group of radicals who are against nuclear arms and appear to think that setting off a bomb to blow up the lobby of a building that has vague military-industrial connections, using the downtown peace rally as a cover, is going to accomplish something useful.  Obviously, that is inane, but fairly consistent with the logic of the Weathermen and other groups of the radical left.  Where the logic completely fails me is why Vancouver and not Seattle, which I already discussed a bit in this post.

The other two radicals are Michelle and Andri.  If I recall correctly, Andri is a former Soviet dissident (he's from Belarus), and he frequently talks about how soft prisoners have it in North America.  Later on, he decides that Gerry ought to plant the bomb since she would only be charged as a juvenile if she is caught.  Michelle seems nice but quite pliable.  It is a little hard to see how she got caught up in all this, particularly as she and Andri are having a baby, but she is sort of portrayed as a bubble-headed liberal who just really wants peace, by any means necessary.  So you can see that solid parental figures are definitely lacking in this novel, and the yong'uns have gone off the rails. 

Oh, I forgot another entire side plot with Gerry getting close to Henry, her paternal grandfather, who is a news anchor in Vancouver, as well as being an accomplished cat burglar.  He breaks into his ex-wife's house a few times during the course of the novel.  He was definitely an interesting (if amoral) character, but it kind of strained plausibility in an already improbable novel where up until the last few pages, it appears Henry staged his own death.

I generally had a hard time accepting this was a novel about Vancouver.  In part because I came to Vancouver late, and it had gentrified to the point where you wouldn't have slacker gangs hanging about in the city, since that demographic has largely decamped to Surrey by this point.  But also, I have the distinct impression that Gerry rides her bike through some wooded areas on her way from Clem's house to her house, but this also has to be close enough to downtown that she pops in and out of downtown (scoping out the building they are going to try to bomb) on a short trip.  The geography just doesn't add up.  If Clem and Megan live in Kits (or even more likely near the UBC Endowment Lands where they won't be disturbed in their bomb making), then this is a 30+ minute trip by bike.  Maybe I am just missing something, but I couldn't get the mental map in my head to make sense.*

My biggest problem, however, was with the march, where the presence of Black Flag anarchists causes things to get completely out of hand with drastic consequences, though they still might not have been so dire if Megan hadn't been so inspired by the anarchists to the point she wigged out.  I don't know about Ms. Lee, but I did go on a few anti-war marches in the late 1980s, slightly after when this book is set, and they were fairly low-key events.  She is completely conflating the anti-WTO riots in Seattle from 1999 with this peace rally in Vancouver from a decade and a half earlier.  It really irked me, and it kept taking me out of the book to essentially argue with the author that her narrative made no sense, since Vancouver simply was not a hotbed of anarchism in the mid 80s.  So for me, the book pretty much unraveled at that point, and I was no longer all that interested in it.  I do think it is a cautionary tale for authors tackling recent historical fiction that the details matter -- but also that no matter how careful you are, there will be some reader that comes along and says that it doesn't square with his or her memory of that era. I think some people will definitely eat this up, but it just didn't do it for me.  However, I will say that it is a testament to Ms. Lee's writing that even though I really didn't care for Gerry (far too bratty for my taste at the start of the book), I wanted to see how things turned out.

* Actually according to this interview piece, the book is set in 1984, but I am almost certain I read a passage in the book saying that the Vancouver Expo of '86 was over.  I may have misread it and the point was that the city was gearing up for the Expo, and thus the first waves of gentrification hadn't hit.

** I am sure part of the problem is that I either can picture Vancouver in the late 1950s through 1960s, courtesy of Fred Herzog, or I know Vancouver after it had almost entirely gentrified after 2000.  Nancy Lee actually grew up in Vancouver in the 1980s (though it isn't clear from interviews if she had arrived by 1984, though at one point she implies it), so she should know better, but it still doesn't feel right to me.

There are a few interesting bits in this interview, including how she completely rewrote The Age several times, including changing Gerry from a young boy to a young girl.  She indicates that Vancouver had a massive peace march in 1984, but I still am having a lot of trouble believing that the anarchists spoiled the march a decade before that happened in Seattle.

In fact, even a couple of days later I am still irritated by this.  There isn't a lot of material on the web (since the mid 1980s exist in this weird pre-internet space), but a few article confirm that roughly 100,000 marched for peace in Vancouver, making it the biggest peace march in Canadian history.  They were there to push Vancouver to pass an amendment to ask the federal government (led by Trudeau in the last month of his final term...) to withdraw from any further joint tests of anti-ballistic missile systems.  How Canadian, how polite... 

What I can't find is any news that there were any major disruptions or outside agitators.  Everything seemed to go pretty well, and people certainly seemed chill for the most part.  Here are a couple of photos from Common Ground indicating how mellow everyone was.

I just can't help but feel it was a mistake for Ms. Lee to hijack this event and make an alternative history version of it, which is why I don't think I will ever really warm up to The Age.

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