It goes without saying that something can’t be all that funny if you need to have the humour pointed out to you. I am faced with this argument every semester when I teach The Death of Ivan Ilych and I need to point out to my students (blank-faced with scepticism) that the first chapter of Tolstoy’s novella is actually quite funny. But maybe their failure to see the humour is more indicative of where we stand as a reading culture (or lack thereof) and our preoccupation with our devices and the never-ending distraction they provide the instant we are bored. Or maybe the failure to see the humour is indicative of one’s own maturity as a reader. I mulled over these ideas as I read the first two books of Anthony Powell’s twelve-part novel, A Dance to the Music of Time. On one hand, I recognized on an intellectual level that much of what he was writing about was humorous, yet at the same time I felt that his novel was marred by stretches of longueur, and I started to think that Powell and the world he depicts is an anachronism, belonging to a world not only long gone and forgotten but also irrelevant (in a way that Proust’s In Search of Lost Time is not). Or maybe Powell is simply an acquired taste. Whatever it is, all my former ambivalence about Anthony Powell suddenly went out the window this time as I reluctantly returned to his novel and cracked open the third book in the series, The Acceptance World. It was a book, I discovered, that I thoroughly enjoyed from start to finish.
Having spent nearly a decade living in South Korea, I naturally became quite interested in its next-door neighbour, that darkly mysterious, forbidden country: North Korea. I became fascinated by the contrast between all that grossly monumental architecture dedicated to its leadership and the reality of a population so utterly deprived—of food, of freedom of expression, freedom of movement, access to basic healthcare, electricity, the Internet; you name it. And whenever the country’s current leader, Kim Jong-un, feels like rattling his sabres and putting on a massive display of military might, I am similarly both awed and disturbed by those images of thousands of goose-stepping soldiers marching through Pyongyang’s central square, a sight made all the more sinister by the regiments of robotic-looking onlookers, all cheering and shouting en masse. And in 2011, when Kim Jong Il died, I was transfixed by the images of the nearly competitive outpouring of public grief broadcast on the news. How very frightening it all seemed, for here was an entire population turned into puppets: made to cry, march, dance, or assemble upon command. To not do so, of course, would not only risk one’s own life, but it would have grave consequences for one’s entire family and generations to come. So when I heard of a forthcoming collection of short stories written by a North Korean dissident still living in that country—something that would shed light on the true reality of the lives of these people—I knew I needed to snatch it up as soon as it came out in English.
I’ve never really understood the notion of “guilty pleasure” when it comes to individual reading preferences. If one occasionally likes to indulge in horror or sci-fi, what’s wrong with that? (And given that we live in a society in which the majority of people’s reading habits extend little further than reading texts and Tweets, it’s a marvel that people are even reading at all.) Yet I felt something akin to guilty pleasure while reading Matthew Kneale’s collection of short stories, Small Crimes in an Age of Abundance. Part of me felt I shouldn’t be enjoying these stories as much as I did. I say this because, for one thing, Kneale’s prose style is decidedly flat and not especially interesting. There is none of the usual beautiful and poetic turns of phrase or unexpected word choices that often characterize more literary fiction. (Ben Fountain’s Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, for example—another collection I recently read—explodes with his brilliant use of language.) There was also none of the usual “challenge” that sometimes accompanies more literary works: stories in which next to nothing happens and are so nuanced and subtle that you wonder at the end of it: “Did I miss something?” Or novels and stories that we secretly admit are slightly boring, but we force ourselves to read anyway because of the salutary benefits we believe we’ll reap in the long run. No, Kneale’s collection is a very quick and easy read, and there is nothing subtle about these stories either: we in the West are bad, the things we complain about are petty, and we’re guilty of not being particularly interested in the sufferings of those in developing countries.
On my end table, beside the couch, is a stack of “to-read” books. It’s an ever-growing pile, and a situation not ameliorated by the intermittent arrival of yet another book that always manages to sneak its way to the front of the queue. But there are times when I face the dilemma of not knowing what to read next. Of course I want to read all of these books—and I do—only not all them suit whatever I might be craving at the moment. Recently, after ferreting through this pile, I settled on an almost unexpected choice, Colm Toibin’s 1997 novel, The Story of the Night, and I realized what it was I’d been hankering after without even knowing it: some good writing told from the perspective of a gay male protagonist—something, I realized, I don’t get enough of.
After having read Proust, I was told I now had to read the “British Proust,” Anthony Powell. At first, I demurred: reading a million-word novel once was enough, thank you. But when I was recently in a used bookshop and happened upon the twelve volumes that constitute Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, I thought I’d give him a shot.
Please join me Wednesday, July 12, at Glad Day Bookshop for the Brockton Writers reading series. It's their annual Queer Night, and I'll be reading alongside Terence Go, jes sachse, and Kai Cheng Thom, as well as special guest speaker, S. Bear Bergman. Glad Day Bookshop is now at 499 Church Street, and the event kicks off at 6:30. For more details, look here or here. Hope to see you then!
Fantastic news! I just learned today that my story "Stunts" was accepted for publication in The New Quarterly! Thanks to the people at Moosemeat, my writing group, for all the insightful feedback I got, and in particular to Isabel Matwawana who was especially assiduous about going over the story several times with a fine-tooth comb. The story will come out in either the Winter or Spring issue. Very excited!
Just in time for Pride, my Pride-related story "Two Friends" is out now in Plenitude Magazine. Thanks to the people at Moosemeat, my writing group, for their valuable feedback when the story was first workshopped, and big thanks to Kathleen Fraser, Managing Editor at Plenitude, for accepting this story.
I teach an introductory fiction course, and like many such courses the focus is on short fiction. Recently, at the start of this summer semester, after my usual enthusiastic welcome, one of my students asked me a question after class that part of me has always secretly hoped to be asked: “What’s your favourite short story?”
May is apparently short story month (who knew?), and so this seems about as good a time as any to post a list of short story collections that have been especially influential for me. So in alphabetical order by author here goes: