Evil, and All That
- Caroline Adderson (Author)
A History of Forgetting. Key Porter Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Lynn Crosbie (Author)
Dorothy L'Amour. Harper Flamingo (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Brett Josef Grubisic
For better or worse, Douglas Coupland’s Generation Xhas come not only to name a demographic group but to define its char acteristics. Accordingly, we might expect members of such a group to engage with a serious topic like evil with a mixture of avoidance, anxiety or apathy. Lynn Crosbie and Caroline Adderson, both born in 1963, suggest the frailty of Gen X generalities. Though their novels meditate on evil in distinct styles, they are united in their creativity and refusal to overlook horror (when ironic detachment à la Gen X would be so much easier).
Like Lynn Crosbie’s "critfiction" Paul’s Case, Dorothy L’Amour is a formally complex work that manipulates thoroughly mediated crimes in order to shift and undermine the "facts" of the cases and the "lessons" we learn from them. Crosbie examines the life and times of Dorothy Stratten, the former Vancouver Dairy Queen counter girl, Playboy Playmate of the Year and actor who was murdered by her estranged husband in 1980.
The subject of numerous biographies, films, and sundry journalistic articles, the Stratten whom Crosbie portrays is daringly unrealistic. Unlike most fictional investigations of a historical figure, Dorothy L’Amour expresses little concern with verisimilitude. Yes, Crosbie’s novel is "about" Dorothy Stratten, celebrity murder victim. Yet on the surface Crosbie’s raunchy and funny narrative discloses a journal-writing Stratten whose delirious incoherence places her well outside victim status. At the same time, Crosbie’s approach provokes questions about celebrity and our fascination with it and forces readers to ponder the very nature of representation.
Stratten’s beguiling journal begins with her i960 birth, recalled as an operatic calamity: "My mother’s anguish broke the windows, her aria of love soaring higher, into rage: My God why have you repaid me this way?" From that point on, Stratten traverses the cultural map; she’ll discuss an obscure Roman manuscript, and a moment later wander the Playboy Mansion, smoking marijuana in peek-a-boo lingerie. All the while her inflated, elaborate language is redolent of Pater and the French Decadent writers who preceded him. Patently false in biographical and elocutionary details, Dorothy’s picaresque reminiscence establishes a resounding but clearly suspect life story.
Under Crosbie’s direction, self-important and narcissistic Hugh Hefner, Playboy founder and author of The Playboy Philosophy, plays a pivotal role. Forever speaking in the first person plural ("used in works of philosophical exposition," he explains), Hefner has an ambivalent role in the making of Stratten’s diary. In the final section, another popular icon, Madonna (Ciccone), discovers Hefner’s journal, and inadvertently reveals that Dorothy’s autobiography may have been penned in fact by Hefner as an odd hagiographie gesture. He has reformed banal blonde Stratten (whom, he recalls, "was a sweet girl, who liked to roller-skate, play checkers") perhaps in order to give her brief life greater pathos than he felt it actually had. In any case, via Crosbie the meaning of "Dorothy Stratten" remains resolutely opaque.
It’s not so much the banality of evil as its pervasiveness that draws Caroline Adderson’s attention in the absorbing A History of Forgetting. Set in present-day dreary, rain-soaked Vancouver, Adderson’s tale begins with a foreboding second-person account of a taxi journey to Auschwitz. Adderson then returns to tense domestic relations in the novel’s first sections, focussing on the painfully slow separation of a long-term couple, Malcolm and Denis. The elder of the two men, Denis, suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. His decline is marked by forgetful-ness, of course, yet also by his increased anger, frustration and aggression. Faced with a lover he no longer knows, Malcolm must make the awful decision about how to best provide care.
Malcolm’s old-fashioned sense of decorum (and his equally old-fashioned sense of homosexual discretion) keeps him at odds with his fellow stylists at his hair salon job. Formerly a star employee at a shop catering to elderly Kerrisdale women, Malcolm with the dun-coloured dye-job as snobbish and outmoded when the salon is bought and given a fashion makeover. He is befriended by Alison, the shop’s apprentice, who is naive and apolitical, a generation or two from Malcolm and surely a world apart.
The murder of another hairdresser by a troupe of homophobic neo-Nazis cements their awkward friendship. While the pair’s spontaneous trip to Poland to confront the wellspring of evil at Auschwitz does not result in catharsis, it does suggest the possibility for the kind of deep personal bond that helps make community vital. With A History of Forgetting, Adderson challenges the myth that bad things happen far away, or else on the TV news. Her vision is bleak, brightened only briefly by transcendent moments of connection.
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Books reviewed: Unholy Stories by Nora Alleyn and Carole David, Kiss of the Beggar by Pierre L'Abbé, Killing Time by Hank Schachte, and Encounters by Michael Trussler
- Post-Communist Power Plays by Reece Steinberg
Books reviewed: The Culprits by Robert Hough and Anna's Shadow by David Manicom
- When She Has Crossed the Bar by Lindy Ledohowski
Books reviewed: May There Be No Sadness of Farewell by Agnes Grant
- Novel Ideas by Kit Dobson
Books reviewed: The Beauty of Humanity Movement by Camilla Gibb and The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman
- Strange Weather by JC Peters
Books reviewed: Wonderfull by William Neil Scott and Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchan
MLA: Grubisic, Brett Josef. Evil, and All That. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 24 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #177 (Summer 2003), (Duncan, Wiebe, Jameson, Thérault, Martel). (pg. 134 - 136)
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