Phil, Queen's Square | May 31, 2019
“There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”
That’s a quote from Walter Benjamin, a cultural critic who took his own life instead of being deported back to Germany in 1940. He had every right to be cynical about civilization.
So, what’s Steven Markley’s beef?
Benjamin’s cynicism is literally all over the novel Ohio by Stephen Markley, a grim tale about growing up in Ohio. Some of the issues: an opioid and meth ground zero as the backdrop, a date raping football player, and rampant unemployment. The writing is spectacular, the characters real and sweaty. Easily, one of the year’s best novels.
If there’s one thing lesson to be learned from reading my previous monthly fiction titles, is that the past is never far from the surface.
Cue Red Word by Canadian author Sarah Henstra. She explores the politics of gender and male violence at an unnamed University, pitting the Greek frat houses against the Women’s Centre. How you feel about how the women precipitate an incident at the centre of the novel will probably dictate how you feel about this novel. There are tragic consequences for the women misusing Audre Lorde’s maxim: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”
Scottish writer Claire Askew is somewhat removed from American gun culture and shootings that seem too normalized living in North America. Her distance just adds to the power of her novel All the Hidden Truths, a school shooting that captures both violence (without glorification), the media outrage and perhaps more personally the toll on the officers and mother of the shooter. Although this novel is found in the Mystery section, it shares more with books like We Need to Talk About Kevin and Little Criminals (sans the bleak comic humour). Another great novel of 2019.
Sadly Adele has nothing to add to this group of excellent contemporary novels. Slimani’s latest is the story of a married woman who finds excitement from casual encounters with men. It could be ripe for meditation, but no. Zero character depth. No attempt at understanding. Slimani got the idea for the novel when the case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn broke: a story of male power and corruption that shares nothing with the life portrayed in Adele.
Next month: Four more contemporary novels and perhaps(!) the best novels of the year so far: Golden State by Ben Winters; Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli, Days By Moonlight by Andre Alexis and There There by Tommy Orange. Four novels that play fast and loose with some novelistic rules.
Get out your bookmarks!