Friday, September 11, 2009

Paying the Pyper

Andrew Pyper! What is going on with you? You publish to acclaim and sales, despite being sort of lacklustre as an actual, you know, writer...and then you make the crazy happen by being all bitchy! Also, your website is terrible: it looks like it was designed by a toddler with bad taste in fonts.

I just read The Killing Circle, which is a total beach book. I read it on an actual beach. It's your standard maybe-supernatural murder mystery; it's set in Toronto, guest-starring real life Toronto venues, which was neat for me, since I live there. I can't imagine that the average Haligonian gets a rush from reading it, but whatever. Me!

The Killing Circle, like Pyper's other books, has generally been well-reviewed. The New York Times gave him a shout-out re: his 2006 book, The Wildfire Season; The Walrus all but peed its pants over The Killing Circle, which they described as "transfixing," "compelling," and "thought provoking."

Which it is, provided that the thought you want to provoke is: snore. Okay, it's not that boring. In fact, it's totally readable and fun. But it's not some Can-lit masterpiece, because that simply isn't what Pyper does. He writes beach books that are allegedly being turned into movies (although a quick stab at the repository of all things film shows a big blank spot where A.Pyp should be). He writes thrillers about things that go bump in the night, starring protagonists whose descent into paranoid hell is evidenced by a drinking problem. They're not bad, per se. They're just sort of...obvious. Setting it in Toronto was a kicky departure, but neither Pyper's prose style or his plots elevate the reader into new heights.

There's a scene in The Killing Circle where Patrick Rush, our boozy, failed-writer hero, gets a chance to attend the Dickies (a barely-disguised Giller); he spends the evening drinking, mocking the attendees, and not eating his caribou tartare. I actually saw Pyper read this section at The Scream, and read aloud, it's charming. On the page, it loses some of its comedy, and the humour is transformed into bitterness. It's tough to parse out where Rush, the sour protagonist, ends and Pyper, the successful-if-not-prizewinning author, begins.

Which, to be honest, is really unattractive. Canada has a big, fat literary pantheon, and we tend to like the same folks over and over again. (As a sidenote, was anyone else impressed with Alice Munro's decision to pull herself out of the running for the Giller, so's some younger writers might have a stab at it? I think that's so cool, especially since it makes Margaret Atwood look like even more of a smirking ice queen for not doing the same. How many Gillers do you need, Maggie? You've already got, like, eleven!) In their defense, those writers are usually mega-talented: they can write circles around just about everyone, even if they have deeply irritating public personae (Atwood).

Pyper hasn't been rewarded by his mentors and peers because he's just not that good. His plots are lazy, his prose is self-concious, and his climaxes? Those big reveals? Major letdowns. He has interesting ideas - what if fiction became reality? what is authorship (I'm struggling not to make a very nerdy lit-crit inside joke; hold your applause)? what is murder? how do the sins of the father affect the son? - but the pacing is loose and the payoff is weak.

I happen to really like Pyper-the-man: he seemed charming in High Park, and he's gone to my high school a few times to give a talk on what the writer's life is like. He's handsome, he's engaging, he's well-spoken. He seems really nice. I bet he has cute kids.

But. I dislike someone snidely asking for accolades by pretending they don't matter. It's entirely possible that Pyper truly doesn't care, and that his characters are the only ones who do. But I don't buy it. Not because it seems unlikely, but because every sentence that mentions other writers fairly drips with stomach acid and sticky jealousy. Either Pyper is a much better writer than I've given him credit for, or he needs to hide his envy under a bigger hat.

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