Book Club: Shyness and Dignity

Dag Solstad explores what inevitably shapes our fate: what we can control and what we can’t control

Book Club: <i>Shyness and Dignity</i>

The existentialist novel — however it may be defined — is a modern invention. Following the devastation of World War II, its intellectual vanguards developed a philosophy to more deeply express the human experience.

These novelists relay existential concepts while paying special attention to detail and voice in style andtransience and nuance in psychology. Ultimately, their philosophical inquiries articulate the tangible and invisible forces driving our alienation from the modern world.

Yet the existential novel can be seen as dated, bordered by conventions and overshadowed by succeeding literary movements that consider the ambivalence of our ontological condition from a greater variety of narrative and philosophical angles. Existentialism is anachronistic  a uniquely twentieth century literary enterprise. How else to revive the genre if not through emulation, parody, or kitsch?

Enter Dag Solstad, Norway’s most celebrated contemporary writer, whose 1994 novel Shyness and Dignity breathes new life into an otherwise exhausted literature. His work is fully absorbed in its specific literary tradition while grounding its concerns in our unique and present-day anxieties.

Its axis revolves around Elias Rukla, a “rather sottish senior master in his fifties” teaching Norwegian literature at a secondary school in Oslo. Mid-lecture, Elias discovers hidden meaning in an ostensibly insignificant line direction in Henrich Ibsen’s play The Wild Duck. The finding inspires Elias to think innovatively about the play’s dramatics and its discussion of fate.

In spite of his passionate delivery, his students remain listless and unmotivated. Frightened by their mass boredom, Elias ultimately resigns himself to defeat. He leaves the school frustrated. Struggling to open his “collapsible” umbrella outside, he enters into a fit of rage, beats it savagely in front of spectating students, and cusses at one of them ruthlessly.

All at once, Elias realizes his downfall. Certain that his teaching post will be terminated, he despairs over the bleak economical and social future awaiting him and his wife. His crisis triggers a sequence of recollections and speculations, interwoven with daydreams and regrets, that follows throughout the rest of the novel until the very end, when he must return to his current life and face his presently doomed future.

Shyness and Dignity takes on the form of a streamofconsciousness narrative, full of winding run-on sentences and multi-page digressions, moving from one fixed idea to the next with the swiftness of pen strokes. The narration exhausts itself in bridging each detail and implication to create an intricately connected web of thoughts and ideas. However, its variations and detours never stray beyond what is truly at stake. Even the most seemingly banal details inevitably fall under the two categories suggested in the title: shyness, the natural yet inhibiting force; and dignity, the great motivator and stimulant.

Apart from its style, the novel’s preoccupation with agency, chance, and fate is a recognizable quality in existentialist literature. Echoes of Albert Camus and Knut Hamsun can be heard all throughout, and any reader of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being will find themselves in familiar territory.

What makes Solstad’s novel especially interesting, however, is its relative lightheartedness and penchant for comedy. One can easily imagine the umbrella scene as a slapstick gag in silent comedy. Yet its pervasive and subtle humor never compromises its sincerity. Miraculously, the novel strikes a brilliant balance between the comic potential of existential dilemmas and the gravity they implicate in our lives. It views our world through a sharp lens, capturing the quiet dramas we harbor daily with equal amounts of grace, sympathy, and amusement.

Shyness and Dignity is the perfect introduction to an author whose work is only recently gaining a wider readership among English-speaking readers. It is a novel that reintroduces familiar existential ideas and unpacks their newfound significance while maintaining a sophisticated style, so as to represent subtle workings of the conscience. Its ethos can be summed thusly in one of the most important lines in The Wild Duck, a proto-existentialist remark that still resonates due to its universality and urgency: “If you take the life-lie away from an average person, you take away his happiness as well.”

Book Club: Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

A little girl’s life stolen and contrived for the illusion of a perfect Eastern beauty

Book Club: <i>Memoirs of a Geisha</i> by Arthur Golden

The only novel I’ve ever wanted to read twice in my life, Memoirs of a Geisha is considered by many to be a historical fairy tale that paints a breathtakingly exotic and beautiful world. Written by an evocative author, it tells the story of a character whom we learn to both love and hate.

Taking place in Japan, the novel spans from the early 1900s, when nine-year-old Sayuri is taken away from her family at the age of nine, to the 1950s, when World War II has left the country in shambles. Sayuri is forced to become a geisha: a female Japanese entertainer specialized in the performance arts. Not to be confused with prostitution, the geisha business is dignified and requires years of rigorous and expensive training.

For background, in the 1920s, there were over 80,000 geishas in Japan. Many of them started training at a very young age in a kaburenjo, a school that teaches girls how to sing, dance, play instruments, and perform tea ceremonies. In addition to becoming a skillful artist, the girls must learn how to carry themselves with grace and allure.

A geisha will spend hours getting ready for work. From lavish kimonos to extensive hairdressing routines, a geisha’s main purpose is to please and entertain men, to gain their liking. This is also so that they can earn a danna: a wealthy man who will pay for and take care of them in exchange for a more intimate relationship. The world of geishas is where the gender dichotomy manifests to its fullest, where women are presented as nothing more than an object of desire.

Through her struggles, young Sayuri takes us into a geisha’s world — one where she’s trained to enchant the most powerful men, yet bear no power in choosing whom she can love. Sayuri lives a life like water flowing down a hill, until she splashes into something that forces her to find a new course. Although she leads a glamorous life in the public eye, Sayuri is helpless to her own fate.

Arthur Golden wrote the entire story in the gentle and innocent voice of Sayuri. To create a narrative as historical and as niche as Memoirs of a Geisha, Golden conducted a lot of firsthand research. Golden interviewed Mineko Iwasaki, who became the biggest inspiration for the creation of Sayuri. Iwasaki was a geisha hersel­f — one of the most well-known in Kyoto in her time.

Iwasaki provided Golden with many rich details and insights about her life as a geisha. However, following the book’s publication and success, Iwasaki was enraged. She felt betrayed at the book’s open publicity of her most private matter — namely, her mizuage, which is a ceremony that auctions a girl’s virginity. In addition, there were details in the book that Iwasaki felt were not properly represented. They acted as nothing more than sprinkled glamour that Golden used to write a bestseller.

Whether the alleged mistakes were intended or accidental, it is undeniable that Golden cannot be a perfect writer of Japanese culture. Golden is a man born in America. He never grew up in an okiya or faced the desolation of losing his entire family to poverty. However, what he lacks in experience, he makes up for with imagination and craftsmanship.

If you’re looking for a precise historical account of geisha culture, this book will not be it. But if you’re looking to escape into a world both lyrical and sensual, a world that captivates and evocates, then this is your book.

Book Club: The Black Prism by Brent Weeks

Autumn is coming: curl up with The Black Prism and a Tim Hortons coffee

Book Club: <i> The Black Prism </i> by Brent Weeks

Brent Weeks is not the first author who I mention to people when I say that I love fantasy. I tend to lean toward Patrick Rothfuss, Neil Gaiman, and Brandon Sanderson — all producers of the beloved literary warhorses that dragged me into the genre.

Weeks’ novels were typically the ones that I paused on and never actually brought home. However, The Black Prism hit me like an emotional dump truck, and I can confidently say that this book is one that I will treasure forever, in multiple first-edition copies, after I finally pay off my library fines.

The Black Prism is a high-fantasy novel that is set in a land with a colour-based magic system. Certain people are able to produce a mystical element called Luxin, which can be used for construction-, attack-, and compulsory-type magic. However, the properties of the Luxin are tied to a colour, and most characters can only create Luxin of one colour — a gift that comes at a deadly cost.

Gavin Guile, the protagonist of the novel, is the only person who can create all seven colours of Luxin. He is worshipped as a divine figure known as the Prism. But Gavin is scarred emotionally and physically from war and is haunted by the acts that he performed to bring peace to his world.

Weeks’ story feels intricately planned. Many fantasy books fall into the trap of mimicking others in the genre. There are several novels that contain a Gavin-like character — The Name of the Wind, a familial feud — American Gods, or even magic based on the colour spectrum — Warbreaker. However, this book is exceptional because, despite the old tropes that feel like familiar friends, the novel spools out plot twists and double crosses in a way that I can only describe as masterful. Without giving too much away, I’ll just say that no one is who they appear to be in this book, and everyone is the better for it.

At times, though, the writing is almost too painful to read. Weeks includes many heavy plot points in the novel. Characters face war, devastation, and heartbreak, yet the novel is set largely after most of these events occur. There is an omnipotent central character, but many of the points of view come from characters who are forced to play sidekick to the legends.

The most emotional scenes come from the ordinary people who are called upon to live in the mess that was created by the giant war, those who have dealt bitterly with those consequences for years after. Weeks never shies away from this idea, which is extremely appealing in a genre that often glorifies and focuses on the stories of the never-fallen.

Finally, this book is perfect for autumn; it should be accompanied by vivid scenery. As so much of this book is based on the ideas of colour and light, Weeks’ writing dwells on the beauty of the natural world and makes a pretty convincing argument for watching the leaves fall from the trees.

This book is funny, well-written, and matches Red Rising in the number of quotable, dramatic, and slightly arrogant phrases. I would recommend it to anyone who loves fantasy or wants to love it.

Book Club: Jason Heroux’s Amusement Park of Constant Sorrow is Canadian literature at its strangest

Sadness and laughter are intertwined within the novella, and every line bristles with its own existential crisis

Book Club: Jason Heroux’s  <i> Amusement Park of Constant Sorrow </i> is Canadian literature at its strangest

What would Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis look like if it was written today by a Canadian who has an absurdist knack akin to Pynchon, Saunders, and Vonnegut? It would look like Amusement Park of Constant Sorrow by Jason Heroux, published in 2018 by Toronto-based Mansfield Press.

Heroux’s Amusement Park of Constant Sorrow is a novella that falls into the realm of magical realism. The story is a puzzle perfectly jigsawed together to capture both the mundane nature and the complexities of everyday life.

The book is set during the Age of Transformation, when everyone and everything is transforming into each other. Owen’s father, once a meaty-hunk of personhood, has transformed into a bicycle lost by Owen in front of a Chinese restaurant.

Meanwhile, Owen struggles to come to terms with his past: he used to be a dog named Scooter owned by a couple, who wants him back to be their dog. Not wanting to leave his wife, Lila, Owen goes through everyday life coming to terms with the fact that he will have to, by dictum of nonsensical yet eerily realist property laws, return to his owners and act like a dog while actually being a person.

It is through the juxtaposition of the outlandish premise with the scene-by-scene mundanity that the book derives its charm and subsequently its profundity. Scenes twist and turn between banality and absurdity. In one scene, Owen goes through the everyday motions of ordering a double double dark roast — a Canadian thing — only to get an elderly man afflicted with Tangier disease.

Amusement Park of Constant Sorrow is about messiness in a world where everything always seems in order. Heroux shows readers the volatility of a world that seems static. Binary oppositions of familiar and strange, change and stasis, and confusion and order are playfully subverted until the boundaries of said terms become indistinguishable from one another.

The brilliance of the novel is that it treats these bizarre switch ups so nonchalantly that the reader cannot differentiate between what is the familiar becoming strange and what is the strange becoming familiar: in this case, the server cannot take the elderly man back because of the store’s no-return policy.

The book is Timbit-sized — only 104 pages — making it a quick and unintimidating read in an era when most people do not read.

The short length ensures that every chapter is a rewarding experience, bubbling with absurd humour, cosmic alienation, and identity crises, often all in the same page. Sadness and laughter exist together in every paragraph, and every line bristles with its own existential crisis.

It’s the type of prose where one catches oneself unconsciously mouthing the words of each sentence as if they are under the book’s incantation. In many senses, this impressive feat of brevity is also where the book momentarily wavers. As the book draws to a close, readers will feel unsatisfied with the way the story resolves itself alongside the stagnation of Lila and Owen’s relationship.

But that’s where Heroux’s artistry shines through: in life, resolutions are always a bit disappointing, and relationships always end up stagnating at some point. It’s only by acknowledging that banality, and by showcasing it in inventive ways, that one can start to understand the maze of contemporary life. In Heroux’s world, one is always lost in that maze, dissociated with their surroundings and cosmically alone against the absurdity of the universe.

One never has a clear grasp of who they are or what they are doing as the hours slip away in conferences and phone calls. Heroux’s world is not unlike our own.

In a world where reality TV stars become presidents, most of us wouldn’t be surprised if we started to transform into mundane objects tomorrow. Heroux’s world is one where absurdity is taken more seriously than seriousness.

In one of the funniest, but also exasperating, arcs of the book, Owen and Lila install a Home Automation service that doesn’t work. They spend the rest of the novel trying to get it removed, going to lawyers and support groups in the fight against the convoluted contract from a big corporation. In one scene, after a harrowing phone call with an agent for the Home Automation company, filled with the standard frustrations of trying to cancel anything over phone, Owen is told that the service can be removed.

Upon hearing those words, Owen is flooded with “feelings of peace, tranquility, balance and harmony” and “the universe [seems] full of mysterious hidden beauty.” In those moments, Amusement Park of Constant Sorrows understands that what David Foster Wallace called “the day-to-day trenches of adult existence” are where the most important cosmic battles are taking place; the most familiar battles end up as the most mysterious.

Amusement Park of Constant Sorrows explores the forgetfulness and always-changing identities that are core to the human experience, asking that confusing question of who we are in a world that constantly transforms, but somehow stays the same.

In the everyday bureaucracy of life, that grand feeling of dissociation hits us out of the blue, and we realize that, deep down, we are not so different from the bicycles and spoons of the world. We, too, are subject to the whims of agents outside our control, merely existing, going from places day-to-day in fleeting moments that culminate in death.