Russell Smith's Noise could definitely be read as a book-end to How Insensitive, his novel published four years earlier. In this one, the main character, James, is a successful magazine writer. One can imagine that if Ted (from How Insensitive) sticks it out and got a few lucky breaks, then he might well be in that position of a writer struggling with too many deadlines (and too many temptations to deal with -- in addition to artworld openings, he is apparently also a food critic and gets to go to all the chic restaurants). It is all a bit too idealized, and this world of the pampered writer (if it ever existed at all outside of Smith's imagination) has completely collapsed with the decline of independent magazines. Indeed, the idea that writers should get paid for their work, rather than just putting it out on the web ("on spec"), seems almost quaint. That really isn't my beef with the novel, however. There are several aspects to the plot and the main characters that I simply either didn't like or didn't believe, and I found this to be an inferior work compared to How Insensitive.
There is something almost cinematic about this novel, perhaps in the John Hughes tradition. First off, we are meant to believe that this writer is so busy juggling deadlines that he completely avoids all contact with his landlord for over six months, while his building is sold out from under him and the rest of the tenants abandon ship. He only turns up at the last minute, barely able to save his belongings from the skip, and he needs to turn to his gay pal, De Courcy, to save his bacon. At a wacky avant garde art installation, he runs into a totally cool photographer, Nicola, who he manages to impress by taking her to the opening of an ultra hip restaurant (where she proceeds to get wasted and blow his cover as a food critic). Not totally deterred by this, he scores an exciting cover profile story of a Canadian regional poet for a hip New York magazine. He manages to get the photographer added as part of the package. This leads to one of the truly funny set pieces, where it turns out that the poet lives in Burlington (and no longer out in Manitoba). On a slightly more serious note, the poet is in an alcoholic daze (and probably has slipped into dementia) during the entire interview, though his wife manages to salvage the situation.
Then follows a crazy week of James just beating his own writing block, but the photographer going underground and refusing to send her shots in. (While I may be mistaken, I think there is also Canadian Thanksgiving, just around the corner here, and there is another amusing piece where James goes home to rural Ontario, and eventually De Courcy comes looking for him and snaps him out of his funk. James also has a quick tumble in bed with Alison, an ex-girlfriend.) In the end, James actually has to break into Nicola's apartment to get the negatives and take them for processing. While I realize she is supposed to be a total flake, this complete inability to deal with a simple assignment felt completely false. In the end, her photos are a huge hit and his story has been cut to shreds by the editors to the point he wants to disown it. Smith goes a bit overboard on the satire at this point. Alison turns up in Toronto, with her baby in town (from a previous marriage, not from the Thanksgiving tryst), but James is starting to back away from the hipster life that she finds entrancing (like a moth to the flame). I feel that Smith is more than a little unfair to Alison in this section, since there is nothing unreasonable about her interests and actions, but again, the requirements of satire are uppermost here. I had a sinking feeling throughout the novel that De Courcy was harbouring secret feelings for James, and indeed, he declares his feelings and is turned down. I was so disappointed with this turn of events on so many levels. My interest in the novel had been waning for some time, and this just hammered in the last nails in the coffin. So unnecessary and not really that believable. In the final few pages, James escapes from all his distractions. On the strength of his story turning up in a New York magazine (with super artistic photos) he lands a monthly local column to write about classical music for one of the local magazines, which will pay enough to cover rent and groceries. Sort of like a fairy tale ending, though of course one that would only last another 10 years max, before the bottom fell out of the magazine industry.
It's difficult to rate this novel. Basically, there are two amusing set pieces, and a lot of wacky (and highly implausible) goings on about the Toronto art scene in the mid 90s, which mostly just exhausted me. In addition, the gay man pining for his straight best friend spoiled the novel so much that I found Noise far inferior to How Insensitive. But if you lived through Toronto in the 90s, this novel might trigger your nostalgia, for better and worse.