Satire, Sex and Smith
- Russell Smith (Author)
Muriella Pent. Doubleday Canada (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Greg Doran
Forget what you think you know about Russell Smith. Smith is known for his acute social observations and sartorial advice in The Globe and Mail, as well as for two well-received novels, How Insensitive and Noise, and a strong collection of stories, Young Men. However, Muriella Pent is a mature novel that marks his arrival as an accomplished novelist. His earlier fiction only hinted at this complex, multi-voiced narrative work. As opposed to his previous “insider’ novels, Muriella Pent is immediately more accessible to a larger audience. You do not have to have gone “club-hopping” with Russell Smith to understand the satiric focus of this latest work.
The most marked difference between Muriella Pent and his earlier work is the absence of the “Smithsonian” hero. The over-educated, hip, cultured hero of his earlier fiction is absent from Muriella Pent. In his place, Smith has created a cast of rich, diverse characters. Foremost in the cast of characters is the novel’s heroine, Muriella Pent, who is a wealthy widow coming out of the shadow of her late husband. The novel follows her development from a stereotypical society wife passively supporting the arts to a strong critic of and advocate for the arts. The pivotal moment in her journey is the arrival of the novel’s other central character, Marcus Royston. Royston appears to be very loosely modeled on Derek Walcott, and it is through him that Smith unleashes his satire. Smith’s central satiric target is the role of “political-correctness” in the artistic community and its stifling effect on creativity.
Anyone familiar with Smith’s columns will know that he is well versed in the language of the artistic world, and he uses this knowledge to present a keen satire. Royston is brought to Toronto, Smith’s urban muse, as part of a writer-in-residence program. Despite his recent creative inactivity, Royston is considered the perfect candidate by the ironically titled Arts Action Committee. In its attempt to bring in the politically correct candidate, the committee unleashes a drunken, bitter figure into the unsuspecting Toronto cultural community. Smith uses Royston, as an outsider, to comment on the absurdities of various cultural policies, such as the mandate of the local arts community to create art “for divorced ladies’ condos.”
Smith skewers the artistic, cultural, and academic communities of Canada in the novel. He even takes aim at his own position as a member of the “Torontocentrism that’s just so commercial and so dominates the publishing world.” No target is safe from Smith’s piercing gaze. Muriella Pent is a work of exceptional humour and satire. It marks the fulfillment of the promise Smith showed with his earlier work.
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MLA: Doran, Greg . Satire, Sex and Smith. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 11 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #185 (Summer 2005), (Stratton, Compton, Morra, Wylie, Gordon). (pg. 181 - 182)
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