Saturday, April 30, 2011

Review: Every Shallow Cut, by Tom Piccirilli

Published: March 2011

Finally got around to it: April 2011

Yes, Officer High School Security Guard, I’d like to report a crime. Go inside and find my guidance counsellor, grab him by the collar and shake him until his back molars crack to pieces. Rap him upside the head with a dictionary. Tell him he shouldn’t perpetuate the fallacy that we can all be whatever we want to be. That all we have to do is to achieve it is want something badly enough and work diligently enough. Spray his eyes and watch him flail screaming across his desk. Tell him to find a new line of work. Tell him there are a lot of others coming up behind me who’ll be visiting him soon. Tell him an army of his former victims is marching across the face of the earth at this very moment. Tell him I’ll soon be back with a different face and a different dog in a different car, but it will be me, and I’ll still have a gun in my pocket. And the next time I might just draw it, and the next time I might just pull the trigger. Yes, I want to report a crime. Someone is being murdered.


There are varying degrees to social despondency. There’s the frustration that too many people lie and cheat their way through life, the consequences never seeming to catch up with them; there are those that feel life has not given them a fair hand, and they’re forever begging/praying/soul-selling their first borns for another chance; there are the men and women, all ages, all levels of success, who fear with never ending certainty the knife they know will one day stab them in the back.

Then there’s the narrator of Tom Piccirilli’s Every Shallow Cut.

This man hates every square inch of the world. His mind is an unfiltered, self-destructive vortex of antagonistic, murderous, spiteful thoughts. He’s been crushed by the world, by having his dreams slowly recede until they’re limping to the grave with little hope of a last-minute reprieve.

Piccirilli’s novella—clocking in at a slim 162 pages—relies on the spiralling momentum of its protagonist’s mind as he plummets deeper and deeper into a self-loathing so severe that takes on a life of its own. The unnamed narrator has nothing—he’s lost his wife, his possessions, and his career as a writer has been in steady decline, each book selling fewer than the last. He’s a forgotten integer and can see no way to climb out of the abyss. All he does have is his bulldog Churchill, a car, a gun, and a lot of demons he chooses to address like a man sentenced to die at the gallows, confessing his sins and the sins others have inflicted upon him all the same.

And hating the world—and himself—for being in this position.

Reading like a vertical slice of a noir married with a certain degree of distorted self-reflection, Every Shallow Cut is at times an unpleasant experience, but never one I wish I hadn’t taken. Piccirilli’s narrator is the author’s dark half rising to the surface, unchained and naked for all the world to see. Outside of being a simple narrative device that allows the reader to easily place themselves within the mind of the narrator, the namelessness of Piccirilli’s antihero could be read as being overtly tied to the author, their names one and the same, or it could be interpreted as one more thing that’s been taken from him—his identity along with all purpose and will to survive.

Hate is something none of us are without. The vitriol on each page of Piccirilli’s novella, while startling and sometimes overwhelming, is also healthy. On one hand the narrator has lost everything he had ever lived for; on the other hand, over the course of the book he is confronting and shouting honestly at everything he’s ever been dissatisfied with. There’s no point in holding back anymore. Everything is going to come out because everything has to come out. The gun in his possession is the arbiter of truth in this case—it’s his final judgement, having divulged the unhappiness that runs through him, and it’s what will help him to decide, when all is said and done, what singular action he takes from here on out: to move forward in this life or the next.

Review: The Unit, by Ninni Holmqvist

Published: June 2009

Finally got around to it: April 2011

During dinner the conversation moved through a range of topics. I didn’t take much part in it, I just sat there listening most of the time. Eventually they started talking about the outside world. The community. Things were changing out there. The number of childless fifty-year-old women and sixty-year-old men was dwindling significantly, and dispensable individuals were now being taken from professions that had previously been completely protected. It no longer mattered if you were a schoolteacher or a day care teacher or a welfare officer or a nurse or any other profession that involved caring for people; not even midwives were given a dispensation now; if you were childless, you were childless, end of story.


Dorrit Weger has just turned fifty. She is single, childless, and in the eyes of her world, utterly dispensable. Upon crossing the half-century mark, she is moved into the Second Reserve Bank Unit for biological material, and she will never leave.

Ninni Holmqvist’s debut novel The Unit is a dystopian science fiction love story that conceptually cribs from The Handmaid’s Tale and Never Let Me Go—especially the latter. However, instead of Kazuo Ishiguro’s clones bred as nothing more than ready-made organ donors, the people in Holmqvist’s disturbing future world are pure-born individuals that simply have little to no impact on the world, and therefore have no purpose in old age other than to help others—people with defined social worth—to live that much longer. At the age of fifty for women and sixty for men, those deemed dispensable are shipped to biological material banks where they not only become organ donors for those worth keeping alive, but also test subjects for new medicines and procedures, regardless of the consequences.

It’s not so simple, though. The most significant way a person can become valued by society is to become a parent before they can be shipped away for “donation.” And as more men and women scramble to have children by any means necessary, more people have to be taken from potentially valued social- and workforce-related positions to make sure there are a steady stream of human guinea pigs available for scientific use. Dorrit has always been dispensable, but it isn’t until she finds love with another Unit inmate that her worth and the ramifications of this new social institution are explored.

I picked up The Unit on a five-hour layover in Heathrow airport, and was nearly finished by the time my flight home was ready to board. It is a quick, very engaging read that does suffer from a few shortcomings—not so much in how the book is written but in what it is at its heart. The themes Holmqvist plays around with are not new to dystopian science fiction, but the way they are filtered through Dorrit and her finding love so late in life, after having given up on the possibility of having perceived social worth, are what make it such a page turner. However, it is the manner and ease in which the premise is accepted by the characters in the book that prevents the narrative from ever feeling as if it has something real to say—some cautionary idea or thesis that it is desperately trying to give voice to.

The best dystopian science fiction is that which offers a kernel of believability—a branch or idea that ties the fiction to our world, here and now. Nineteen Eighty-Four gave us Big Brother and the idea that with a slight twist of the knife, security and surveillance could transition from protection to control to dominance; Fahrenheit 451 offered the terrifying idea that the proliferation of information could one day spiral out of control, forcing the pendulum to swing in the other direction—to limit information for the good of society; A Clockwork Orange showed the lengths it’s possible for us to go to in our efforts to “fix” what’s wrong with people, as we always seem to think we can. What these stories and The Unit have in common is the concept of protection—of enacting a dramatic measure that, for better or worse, is done with what is thought to be the best interests of society as a whole. Where The Unit differs from the aforementioned titles is that regardless of the situation, it’s incredibly difficult to imagine a world where it would ever be so acceptable to willingly submit oneself to complete organ and tissue donation at the premature expense of one’s life, and all because you weren’t a parent, or didn’t have a career that changed the world.

Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go has the same stumbling block. It presents a world where because the technology exists to clone humans, it is perfectly acceptable to murder them for their organs, thereby sidestepping the discussion of whether one human or another has more or less value simply because they were conceived in a lab. In Never Let Me Go, the humans are treated quite literally like free range cattle—capable of living their lives until someone decides that their liver or pancreas or heart has more value in the body of another. Holmqvist alters the equation by citing worthlessness in the eyes of society as reason enough to cash in one’s chips once they’ve crossed a specific line in the sand, but the same issues remain. Both books address the question of worth, but in a philosophical sense that does little to convince the reader that the world around them has devolved to such a state where the majority or politicians and leaders and voters worldwide would ever agree to allow such programs to exist. The concerns of what has brought society to its knees so dramatically as to adopt these measures are glossed over in favour of having the characters ruminate on their worth and their distaste at the world and their apparent bad luck for having wound up in their current situation.

I feel like I’m not giving The Unit a fair enough shake. It is an enjoyable read, one I’d recommend to anyone with a love of dystopian science fiction. The characters are realistic, relatable, and it is easy to feel for the hopelessness of their situation. As a character study in a world gone awry, The Unit works. I only wish Holmqvist had gone to greater lengths to explore the nature and history of a society so apparently backed into a corner as to be forced to result to truly alarming measures.

Review: Kafka on the Shore, by Haruki Murakami

Published (in English): January 2005

Finally got around to it: April 2011

“But like you said, there might be examples,” Oshima continues, “of people becoming living spirits out of positive feelings of love. I just haven’t done much research into the matter, I’m afraid. Maybe it happens. Love can rebuild the world, they say, so everything’s possible when it comes to love.”

“Have you ever been in love?” I ask.

He stares at me, taken aback. “What do you think? I’m not a starfish or a pepper tree. I’m a living, breathing human being. Of course I’ve been in love.”

“That isn’t what I mean,” I say, blushing.

“I know,” he says, and smiles at me gently.


Structured in a similar way to Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, Murakami's Kafka on the Shore is a split narrative, going back and forth between Kafka Tamura, a 15-year-old boy who has run away from his sculptor/cat-murdering father (because cat souls make the most wondrous flutes) and is searching for his long lost mother and sister, and the elderly Nakata, a socially and mentally distorted man who makes his living as a finder of lost cats, a task he is especially efficient at thanks to his unique ability to speak with and understand them. Along the way, Kafka takes refuge in a quiet, privately owned library where he falls in love with the 15-year-old ghost of the head librarian, Miss Saeki, prompting an affair with the true-to-life model who may or may not be his mother, thus potentially cementing the Oedipal curse that caused him to flee his home in the first place. And I haven’t even mentioned the dream rape of a woman who might possibly be his sister, though neither the mother's or the sister's identity is ever directly resolved. Simultaneously, Nakata kills a man calling himself “Johnnie Walker,” a murderer of cats (and Kafka’s father), before embarking on a long journey of psychic cleansing with the help of a truck driver named Hoshino.

Murakami has built his career on blurring the division between the real and the metaphysical, and Kafka on the Shore might be his most difficult narrative to penetrate. Before even hitting the halfway point of the novel, it became clear that the parallels and riddles being drawn between familiar Murakami staples and influences such as Greek myth, real-life “ideas” as avatars (the character of Colonel Sanders), and jazz would require more than one reading to fully comprehend. It’s fair to say that some of the metaphysical questions prompted are among the most esoteric in Murakami’s writing, with the links between characters intentionally obscured. What becomes clear when reading the book is that the author has no intention to provide any concrete answers, or even the tools to discover such things. Answering the riddles the book provides, directly or indirectly, would be antithetical to the tapestry he’s worked so hard to construct—one whose purpose is to activate discussion. When an answer is given, discussion ends, and it’s obvious that Murakami wanted to construct a narrative that could be interpreted in any number of ways.

The yes-no-maybe-so structure of the plot will alienate some, but the book’s strength lies in its ability to layer these questions and riddles on top of one another without it ever becoming too confusing or distracting. While concrete resolution may not exist within the book’s pages, the characters are never uninteresting or lifeless, and the curious nature of their interactions—traipsing effortlessly between very blunt and open dialogue to discussing the potential of falling in love with a literal spirit as if it were a common occurrence—do a lot to anchor the book in a comfortable middle ground between reality and complete surrealism.

Kafka on the Shore is not Murakami’s strongest work, and it sometimes relies too much on imagery and concepts used in his previous novels, but it is difficult to put down all the same. For those requiring resolution and hard answers to their narratives, it will likely frustrate and annoy. For Murakami fans, it feels like a culmination of concepts and structural choices that have been developed through previous titles like Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. While not entirely new in some areas, Kafka on the Shore offers a deeper glimpse into the types of questions that drive Murakami’s work, and as such it is very easy to recommend.

Review: The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, by Alex Ross

Published: 2007

Finally got around to it: March 2011

By the last scene of Act I, when the brutish Drum Major forces himself on Marie to the tune of dissonated C-major chords and the strains of “We poor people,” the method of the opera is clear. Strongly dissonant writing suggests the working of abstractions: the cruelty of authority, the relentlessness of fate, the power of economic oppression. Tonal elements represent basic emotions­—a mother’s love for her child, a soldier’s lust for flesh, Wozzeck’s jealous rage. The theme contradicts Schoenberg’s utopian notion that the new language could replace the old. Instead, Berg returns to the method of Mahler and Strauss, for whom the conflict of consonance and dissonance was the forge of the most intense expression. Consonance is all the sweeter in the moment before its annihilation. Dissonance is all the more frightening in contrast to what it destroys. Beauty and terror skirmish, fighting for Wozzeck’s hollow soul.


Racking up praise and award nominations upon its release in 2007, Alex Ross’ The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century is a dense, compelling thesis. Across continents and cultures, Ross examines the nature of musical composition in the 1900’s, looking at the effect music—primarily classical—had on politics, culture, war, and people, and the countering role that a world in flux and at war had on the composition and evolution of music and compositional styles and methods.

Ross, music critic for The New Yorker, presents a wealth of research that dissects musicians, composers and their art, moving linearly through the century, with multiple lenses: from the perspectives of the composers—their personalities, histories, political affiliations, and their private lives; through detailed analysis of the theory and structural composition of specific pieces; filtered through the eyes of politicians, leaders, and common folk as they traverse through economic collapse, wars, social and racial development, and the cultural transitions of art as it moves from European nations to North America, giving birth to new styles and approaches along the way. The synthesis between the two—how music affected the world and the world affected music—is handled beautifully, deftly guiding readers to understand the timelessness of theories outlined in Janet Wolff’s The Social Production of Art, that “Everything we do is located in, and therefore affected by, social structures.” As with any art, no composer works in a vacuum—their work is changed through their interaction with the world, and the world’s interpretation of their work changes their methods of production. The two concepts are forever intertwined, something which Ross goes to great lengths to illustrate in every chapter of this book.

The breadth of information in The Rest is Noise is almost staggering. Never has my training in classical music and theory been more useful than in reading this book. Ross doesn’t shy away from employing detailed musical theory in any of his analyses, and the text is stronger for it. The richness of content, especially in the first two sections (covering the first half of the century, up until the end of the Second World War), offers a certain level of authenticity that often makes the book feel less like a historical tome and more like a hybrid of styles that relies—possibly too much for some readers—upon one’s in-depth knowledge of the theory and techniques at hand more than it does culture and history.

The book is not perfect, however. The third section, detailing the entire second half of the century, feels more disjointed and less investigative than the first two sections. Though the focus throughout the book is on the evolution and impact of predominantly classical music, I would have liked more time devoted to the elements of such composition and how they have been modified and transposed through the growth of specifically North American styles—rock, pop, jazz, experimental, and avant-garde. While classical composers are given their due throughout the book, composers and musicians of more contemporary styles are presented as second-tier players in the grand scheme. This doesn’t tarnish the book’s overall quality, but it’s an unfortunate oversight all the same.

The Rest is Noise is a rich, savoury read. Ross’s analysis is always engaging as he slowly unravels a narrative vein to the century that few would likely have known or given thought to. Like all artists, the musicians and composers of the twentieth century were players and puppets at the same time—installing themselves in social and political circles, invisible or otherwise, while maintaining whatever artistic autonomy they could. Some changed the world, but all were changed by the world.