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.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Happy New Year

Happy New Year! Okay, yes, I know that technically, the New Year is several months away, give or take, depending on which New Year you like to ring in. But doesn't the back-to-school season feel so fresh? The colours on the trees emerge, Queen Sweater takes over from Princess Tank Top, people stock up on binder paper, and the time of learning, after a brain-addlingly hot summer, recommences.

Sure, most people in their mid-twenties have graduated by now. Some even have that double-plus signifier of education, the Master's degree. I, on the other hand, am taking the scenic route through my degree: half-forgotten minors in Biological Anthropology, detours into Book and Media Studies, and dreamy stretches of endless English courses. Now, in the final stretch (okay, in the victory lap: I earned my degree last year and still didn't graduate), I've found some interesting side roads.

There was a moment of truth last Christmas when I sat down at the computer, cracked my knuckles, and started looking for work. English Majors are not an endangered species, and the kind of work I want to do - progressive, urban, literate, communal - demands more than just being able to read Spencer. Most of the postings I came across wanted people with Real Skills: post-grad work, loads of experience, specific skill sets, and a driver's licence (sigh). As a noodly perpetual student, I am sorely lacking in many - all - of those categories.

Once I set my cap on working in city planning, I started to figure it out a little. A graduate program coquettishly winked at me. I landed at intership at an awesome magazine. I got a job at a housing co-op and stumbled into a writing gig. I feel like having a goal, finally, is giving shape to my decisions and thoughts. I like to write, I like to talk, I care about people and the places they live. And I finally have an answer to give when people elbow me and say, "English, eh? You want to be a high school teacher?"

Anyway, this extended remix of an undergrad has been useful. For one thing, budgeting is clutch. And not get all moral-of-the-story here, but education and learning is a process, and going back to school - or staying in school until your fingers get pruney - is totally necessary. Parents of high schoolers are forever saying that university teaches people how to learn, which is true, sort of. It certainly didn't teach me how to study. On the other hand, it did expose me to a monster variety of weird books and facts about primate dentition, some more useful than others. But if you spend long enough in school (for some folks, that's two weeks; others need years) you will learn useful and alarming stuff about yourself.

So, since I'll be so busy majoring in myself over the next few months, I'm going to cut the entries from three to two a week. I'm not slacking, and I'll try to post links to my other writing endeavors - there will be legion, apparently. And, of course, regardless of whether you're cycling into a new school year or just grumping around the office as usual, happy new year. Now go buy yourself a new binder to celebrate.