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Sunday, October 19, 2008

Elysium Review, Part 2

Part two of my review of Elysium by Pamela Stewart, published by Anvil Press, Vancouver.

Part one of my review is found on this same blog. This review is part of a wonderful idea called Mini Book Expo.

Elysium is a collection of short stories centered on themes of death and loss, bad lives and bad sex. Unfortunately the troubles suffered by all the characters are made shallow by the many typos (see my first review of the book) and by what I can only describe as unexamined writing. If you want the down and dirty here is my opinion: Piss poor writing, cheap storytelling, grammatical problems, gluts of cliche phrases, shoddy editing, lack of fact checking. You know how you see cars with "New Driver" on a card in the back window? This book should have a sign that says, "New Writer" posted on the back. I can't stress enough how much this book irritated me for it's complete lack of refinement. That Anvil Press published this is a crime. It makes it seem they care very little about publishing -- I hope they soon prove me wrong.

I wanted to like this book, I really did. But, I took issue with many aspects of the writing, from poorly constructed sentences and misplaced commas to the fact everyone speaks with exactly the same voice to twists that are gratuitous and cheap. I'll work my way through them with a few examples, but let me first say that the desire to write a book is commendable. The effort required is outstanding. So why would someone take to press, and why would a publisher undertake a book that is so obviously flawed? I won't account for the market, but perhaps one reason may be attributed to what the author writes about her history: she studied with Barbara Gowdy at Ryerson and she is a member of the Saskatchewan Writers' Guild [sic]. The guild does not put an apostrophe into their name -- let this be an indication of the sloppiness that follows in these stories.

Stewart's first trick is to combine partial sentences with complete sentences. Is this called ellipsis or anapodoton? Maybe someone can help me with this. With this problem. Not only of the word. But of how much. How much. I can take. Before. I quit. Reading.
You get the point. It's without discernable reason, without structural beauty, apparently applied at random. There are many authors who use this with expertise but not Stewart. At other times she sounds like she's read too much Stephen King by using the partial sentences to repeat a point for emphasis. It's ugly and cheap. Really cheap.

She states on the back of the book that she is a "literary proctologist" and that her writing "often looks into places that people generally don't want to look." Why then does she continually use cliches as though she's never even cursorily looked? Couches are red velvet, women have sexual hangups, people finish every drop, things happen, they shed a big fat tear when things are really stressful at work. A true perceiver would have seen the details and would have caught these cliches in editing the book. They are a sign of a writer without experience.

No matter what the story and no matter who the character, the people all talk the same. They speak in the same voice, use the same words and sentence length. This is a sign of a beginning writer. And they use "fuck" all the time when mad. I counted up in one story the number of times the character used the word to punctuate. It wasn't pretty.

Passive verbs abound. No wait, I'll do it in her style. Is it that there are many verbs that are passive and this is a problem?

Let us now move to her insight as she plumbs the depths of the human psyche as people respond to events at the edges of human existence. "I spent the next twenty minutes asking everything I could think of: why did God take my mother, allow the Holocaust, pain, suffering, disease, winding my way through a history of the world's misery." This is about as deep as it gets, about as deep as skimming Google results or polling a third grade class.

Stewart lacks an ability, I believe, to pause and step outside her story to view it with an objective eye. Again this is the sign of a beginning writer. Did she cry when writing them because she felt so much? In "Red means Stop" the two characters are described as "he" and "his brother" but she begins to switch the characters so we get absolutely confused. We end up not knowing who speaks, an frankly we stop caring. Here is an example:

He gave her money too. To get her off his back.
"I'm the man of the house now," he said.
His brother told him he did this to stop their mother from bringing a new man into the house.
"The last thing we need is some guy thinking he's in charge."
His brother's car was off limits to him, except for that one day.

Later in the same story one of them is holding a knife against "the nape of his brother's neck"." Three sentences later he pushes the knife in and watches the blood "drain from his brother's penis." Either this is vague or he cut the penis, which evidently extends from the boy's neck.

On the same page we see her loose Stephen King style hard at work: "He knew he didn't want to find out. Not now, not like this. Maybe not ever." The difference is King usually ends chapters on such notes.

This is what I mean by a seasoned writer being able to step outside and see the stories functioning as they realy are, not as the writer thinks they are.

In "A New Day" we see more vague writing with my comments: "Instead (no comma here) Sherri woke up with a hangover. Lit a smoke, (vague double meaning word here) took a deep drag (cliche) had a coughing fit, (cliche) slugged down (cliche) a bottle of beer after making sure there were no butts in it (how exactly do you do this, especially when the desire is to slug) and started again." (started what again?) (dull sentences breaking Gordon Lish's rule to write the most shining sentence ever written. If she slugged down the beer it would be empty. Can't do that again except with a new one. Did she check again for butts? Did she wake up with a hangover again?

In "All Day Breakfast" her lack of care with stories even gets her to contradict herself. "I know what they do to the food here, and I make sure it doesn't happen to his. Not that we're negligent, but when you're preparing large quantities of food anything can happen. A fly lands in pancake batter and no one notices. Things like that." But she, evidently does notice, and she prevents it. But how can she prevent it if "no one" which I assume includes her, notices.

Oh yes, on the page previous her whole story is a fight about a vegetarian and her meat eating boyfriend. He eventually uses a lambskin condom, which is the setup to the whole punchline that is a book she picks up titled, "Raold Dahl's Lamb to Slaughter." Hilarious. Really hilarious, funniest thing I've seen in years. I hope you understand my cynicism. One: that is not a twist. Two: that is not witty. Three: that is just too adolescent for the story. Four: just because Dahl titles a book that, it doesn't make it resonate with meaning. Please, where is Hemingway's Merde detector when needed? I get the feeling she spends too much time watching tv.

Try on page 125 this grotesque series of prepositional phrases, "This was accomplished in court by holding a sardine sandwich that the court clerk had forgot in his locker for three days, up to her face." Painful stuff.

Or try this clunky sentence for style, "He is sure if it is meant to be they will work it out."

The ugliest sentence in the book must be this, "She dissolves in Marie's mind like wet tissue paper sitting at the bottom of an unflushed toilet."

Characters are named the same in different stories, (they are not the same character) titles are flat, the writing is dull and of the same tone and pacing. Tenses switch from present to past with randomness. I'm not sure about talent and writing, I suspect it's the same for most people, it requires lots and lots of hard work, hard study, tons of reading, and a huge amount of sensitivity. I don't see evidence of any this here and I don't encourage anyone to read this collection of poorly written work. Stewart writes on page 134, "It seems rote, and besides, it's just irritating." I couldn't agree more.