I love the dedication of this book:
To all those who resist the feed -M. T. A.
When I began this book, I was very ambivalent about whether I would actually read it. I am not anywhere near fitting into the “young adult” category anymore and I was convinced it was already too “far out” for an “old adult”. The first chapter, for instance, is entitled “your face is not an organ” and the first sentence is “We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.”
It got even less encouraging: “We went on a Friday, because there was shit-all to do at home. It was the beginning of spring break. Everything at home was boring. Link Arkwaker was like, “I’m so null,” and Marty was all, “I’m null too, unit,” but I mean we were all pretty null, because for the last like hour we’d been playing with three uninsulated wires that were coming out of the wall. We were trying to ride shock waves off them.” They decide to give up that activity and go somewhere called the Ricochet Lounge with some girls and “stay at a hotel there and go dancing.
We flew up and our feeds were burbling all sorts of things about where to stay and what to eat. It sounded pretty fun, and at first there were lots of pictures of dancing and people with romper-gills and metal wings, and I was like, This will be big, really big, but then I guess I wasn’t so skip when we were flying over the surface of the moon itself, because the moon was just like it always is, after your first few times there, when you get over being like, Whoa, unit! The moon! The goddam moon! and instead there’s just the rockiness, and the suckiness, and the craters all being full of old broken shit, like domes nobody’s using anymore and wrappers and claws.” This is followed by a little reflection about travelling alone and needing the noise of your friends in space and, finally to the thought that the narrator (Titus) was really hoping to meet someone on the moon because he was lonely. When they get to the hotel, things were not much better. “It was a pretty crumby hotel, and there weren’t enough sheets, and there was hardly any gravity, and no one had a fake ID so they could put a lock on the minibar…”. The advantages were that it was “meg cheap, and all the staff were made from a crystalline substance.”
After dinner they returned to the hotel and went to the Ricochet Lounge. It was spring break and there were plenty of parties. They played a game involving “twirling all over the place” and then Titus “saw someone watching”: “She was like the most beautiful girl, like, ever.”
This girl is Violet and she is on the moon all alone. She says that she “was just there to observe.” They ask her to go with them to a club called the Rumble Spot that they’s heard about on the feed. With a little coaxing, she joins them. On the way to the club they see kids protesting, “some of them were even protesting about the feed. They were like shouting ,”Chip in my head? I’m better off dead!”
At the Rumble Spot, “it was meg big big loud….frat guys were wearing Tachyon shorts…which were $789.99 according to the feed and they were on sale for like $699 at the Zone, and could be shipped to the hotel for an additional $78.95, and that was just one great thing that people were wearing. When I looked around, I wanted so much, that all the prices were coming into my brain, and it was bam, bam,bam…”.
There was an old guy in a bow tie there. “He was maybe a hundred or so, dancing with the ripplechicks, a man in a dirty old tweed jacket, and he had this long white hair that looked kind of yellow, and his eyes were wide, like he was in mal (malfunction). He kept on sticking his thumbs up in the air.” Things got noisier and crazier and more crowded and the old guy was yelling at people: “We enter a time of calamity!”
“The old guy reached out and, with a metal handle, touched me on the neck. (Titus is speaking) Suddenly I could feel myself broadcasting. I was broadcasting across the scatterfeed, going, helplessly. We enter a time of calamity! We enter a time of calamity! I couldn’t stop. ” The old man touched Violet and Marty and Link and they all started broadcasting along with other people the man had touched. “People were moving away. The police were coming.” When the police came they “whispered to us: We’re going to have to shut you off now. We’re going to have to shut you off.”
All that happened in Part 1: I was hooked. What had happened? What was the feed? How was it installed? How did it work? Why had it had to be shut off? What did the old man have to do with it? Where was Violet? What happened to them in the hospital? Did Titus have a relationship with Violet? How did that turn out?
I will just tell you one or two things and the rest you will have to read about:
1. “…the braggest thing about the feed, the thing that made it really big, is that it knows everything you want and hope for, sometimes before you even know what those things are.”; and
2.”Everything we think and feel is taken in by the corporations, mainly by data ones like Feedlink and OnFeed (think Google here folks) and American Feedware, and they make a special profile, one that’s keyed just to you, and then they give it to their branch companies….so all you have to do is want something and there’s a chance it will be yours.”
M. T. Anderson wrote this book in 2002. He writes in an essay at the back of the book that “it is out of the memory of my anger as a teen at the bullying maneuvres of “youth marketing” that I wrote the book – but also out of the knowledge that even now, I’m part of this system of desire. I sill can’t get out of my head the images of who I’m supposed to be.”
“We have at our fingertips knowledge and power like no other generation before us, and that’s intoxicating. I am no Luddite. And this would not have been an effective satire, in my opinion, if I hadn’t also been seduced by what I was mocking. It is the anguish of indecision that animates it. This is indeed a brave new world, but there is a cost.”
When he wrote the book he says, “he was worried about the cultural effect of this information buzz on how we understood ourselves – even on our own neurological development. Now I am more worried by how the media shell actually insulates us from understanding the world around us.”
I have gone from not wanting to read this book to wanting to read it again and tell others to read it. It has the capability to increase your understanding and to provoke serious thought about the role of technology and corporatism/consumerism in your world.
In Claysoot, all the men are under the age of 18. The novel tells the story of two brothers, Gray and Blaine Weathersby and begins on the day that Blaine turns eighteen and will be leaving Claysoot. Blaine is the father of Kale whose mother is Sasha. Kale lives with Sasha and Blaine and Gray live in the house where they were born. Their mother is dead and their father left, of course, when he was 18.
Gray is totally preoccupied as the story opens with the fact that this will be the last day he sees his brother. He thinks “Blaine’s been damned since the day he was born. Just like me. Just like all the boys in Claysoot.”
Gray is out hunting for food (to eat and to barter). His thoughts continue as he travels through the forest: “Blaine probably won’t even have an appetite. The Heist tends to do that to people, especially the boy of age. Eighteen is far from a celebrated milestone, and come midnight, Blaine will unwillingly greet his fate. He’ll vanish before our eyes, disappearing the way all the boys do hen they turn eighteen, as good as dead. I’m terrified for him, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t scared senseless myself. Since Blaine turns eighteen at midnight, it means I turn eighteen just three hundred and sixty-four days later.”
Gray reflects upon what it was like to share a birthday with his older brother and how they would spend their birthdays with one another. “We were the Weathersby brothers, the boys with too much zest for life in such a gray place. That zest didn’t last forever, of course. You grow up quickly in Claysoot.”
Claysoot was named after the two elements most apparent in the town. The day the story begins is, as Gray puts it, “a series of lasts. Our last lunch. Last afternoon tea, last game of checkers. After tonight it will be over. After tonight, he will be gone. ” Childhood memories come flooding back for Gray: “Xavier Piltess taught us over the course of a muggy summer when I was ten. He was fifteen and had his own bow. He sat in Coucil meetings and got to vote on important issues, and he knew exaqctly how much a rabbit could go for in the market compared to a deer or a wild turkey. The way we saw it, there was no question Xavier couldn’t answer. Until , of course, he was Heisted as well.”
In Claysoot, boys became men at fifteen and went to Council Meetings and were “slated”. The latter meant that they were, as Gray puts it, shoved at “a different girl each month”. Gray says about the process: “Not that it isn’t enjoyable – it always is – but I’ve grown to hate the moving around, sleeping with one girls only to be pushed at another. There’s a level of comfort that is always missing. Each encounter feels like a formality and one that could far too easily result in fatherhood. While I hate the routine, I understand why the Council shoves us at a different girl each month. If we don’t want to die out, there’s really no other option.”
Other main characters in the early part of the story include Emma who is the daughter of Carter who operates the Clinic for Claysoot and who has known Gray and Blaine since birth. Gray has this to say about Emma: “I watched her change over the years, abandoning her thin frame for the curves that now fill out her dresses. She’s become increasingly pretty as she nears eighteen, and for as long as I can remember, I’ve been interested in no one else. I’ve made my rounds in the slatings, but I’d be kidding myself if I said I didn’t want just Emma. I guess it’s fitting that I’ve never been paired with her. I probably don’t deserve it.”
Maude Chilton is another interesting female character. “Maude has been around since the beginning, forty-seven years to be exact.” Gray read about her in the scrolls stored in the Claysoot library: “Maude was thirteen back when Claysoot was founded. There were no adults. Now Maude leads the Council…Every son Maude’s ever known, every nephew or grandson or brother, has fallen victim to the Heist. Most of the girls she grew up with have died from disease or old age.”
It gets more and more interesting as Gray seeks to understand why Claysoot works the way it does and why there has to be a Heist. His curiosity and the loss of his brother lead him to investigate the Wall that surrounds Claysoot. Others have attempted to go over the Wall but always come back burned to death. Will Gray succumb to this same fate if he continues to obsess over the loss of his much-loved brother?
There is supposed to be a sequel entitled Frozen: I am on the look out for it! This is a very creative and compelling read with equal servings of adventure, uncertainty, young love and its complexities and struggles between power over and power by or through all people.
This is the second Jonah Geller novel I have tried and I have NOT read them in order: I wanted to read the Canadian cities first and I was afraid that I might not like Boston or Chicago after being so enamoured with the Toronto location in Buffalo Jump which I reviewed here in December 2013 (check the archives). Miss Montreal did not disappoint one iota but I would recommend that you read Boston Cream before it just so you know what happened (also High Chicago) both of which I will read next.
This one starts out with a wonderful baseball story about two twelve year old boys, one of them being Jonah Geller, attending a summer camp:
“Sammy Adler was without doubt the least corrordinated, least athletic person, male or female in the camp. Tall, gangly, flat-assed, he ran like Frankenstein’s monster, knees knocking together, ankles weak, his feet slapping the ground like a bird headed for extinction. His height made him of occasional use in basketball or volleyball, but on the softball diamond he was what we then called a spaz. And still would. A glove on his hand was like a metal pan ready to clank. Balls hit or thrown to him caromed off his shins or bounced through his legs cleanly. To say he threw like a girl would be an insult to most girls in the camp. There was nowhere to hide him in the field, unless you needed a guy to turn and watch a ball sail over his head while everyone else yelled “Go!” And at the plate, he’d stand flat-footed, with the bat on his shoulder, and swipe at the ball, stiff as a turnstile, usually after it had crossed the plate.” So how did such a kid get a nickname like Slammin’ Sammy? It’s a great story and a very good opening to the events of the novel.
Here’s what Sam’s wife Camille tells Jonah about him:
“Sam was an observer of life. And a good one. He could be at the most fantastic party in the world, the greatest concert, the biggest gathering – like a Woodstock – and he’s be off to the side making notes, taking down the details, planning how he would write it in his magazine. …Sam was always somewhere else. Always in his head. His perfect night would be to eat dinner at home and watch a movie, or hockey….to get him out for something beside work, forget it.”
Shrier builds warm characters well (and not so warm characters rather well too). Here’s how he introduces us to Artie Moscoe, who is Slammin’ Sammy’s grandfather:
“Artie Moscoe was nineteen years old in the summer of 1950. Still living in his parents’ cold-water flat on DeBullion Street, the rent forty-two dollars a month, and still there were months when the family couldn’t pay. Cold months, winter months, when bailiffs piled their furniture in the snow at the curb and Artie had to check all the different clubs above shops on St. Lawrence where his father might be playing pinochle, to pry out that extra ten or twenty dollars his mother needed to pay the landlord. He was still sharing a room with his two brothers, Abie and Bernie. And despite being engaged to be married, still a virgin.”
Detail upon detail in Dickensian fashion, Shrier’s novels move quickly and are very cinematic. This is the first time I have met Jonah’s partner Jenn and although she plays a limited role in this story I am already looking forward to reading about her again. I am even drawn to his hit man Dante Ryan and his Hemi-powered Charger. Shrier ‘s main characters are drawn in sufficient detail that the reader accepts and trusts them as Shrier presents them.
The title comes from at least two references: When Artie Moscoe worked in Montreal’s fashion district at Dominion Dress Company,owned by his mother’s first cousin, one of the company’s higher end lines was called Miss Montreal. Artie had a serious relationship at the time with a woman named Micheline whom he called Miss Montreal sometimes. Their son is a character in the novel.
Shrier writes humour well too. While driving in Montreal with Dante Ryan, Jonah reflects upon the experience:
“I’ve been on some bad roads in my life. In Israel, for example, where you are more likely to die in a road accident than in any war or act of terrorism. In France where passing on blind-curves is a sudden-death national sport. Even in Ontario, where winter whiteouts make the tamest straightaways deadly.
Give me any of those anytime, day or night, over Montreal’s elevated highway: the Metropolitan. Narrow lanes, potholes the size of bomb craters, tailgaters, cars crossing double solid lines as if they weren’t there. Ryan was snarling like a Rottweiler by the time we exited onto Boulevard Marcel-Laurin and headed north into Ville St-Laurent.”
Anyway, enough said. Another exciting, fast-moving genuine adventure with a setting that inspires travel and characters that make good company. There are even some interesting social issues taken on in this one. If you haven’t tried a Shrier novel yet, I highly recommend the two I’ve read to date.
“We are on our way to Budapest: Bastard and Chipo and Godknows and Sbho and Stina and me. We are going even though we are not allowed to cross Mzilikazi Road, even though Bastard is supposed to be watching his little sister Fraction, even though Mother would kill me dead if she found out; we are just going. There are guavas to steal in Budapest, and right now I’d rather die for guavas. We didn’t eat this morning and my stomach feels like somebody just took a shovel and dug everything out.”
The narrator is ten year old Darling who lives in a shantytown in Zimbabwe and she and her friends (listed above) are heading out to “hit Budapest” where there are “big, big houses with satellite dishes on the roofs and neat graveled yards or trimmed lawns, and the tall fences and the Durawalls and the flowers and the big trees heavy with fruit that’s waiting for us since nobody around here seems to know what to do with it. It’s the fruit that gives us courage, otherwise we wouldn’t dare be here.”
The Durawalls come in different designs and a search on Google turns up various listings for them in Zimbabwe. Here is a picture of just one such wall which demonstrates how they were used probably in Budapest where the children have gone to steal the guavas.
Here are the answers to a couple of questions asked of the author in November 2013:
Sam Umukoro Interview: What influence has your background had on your work? Did your being Zimbabwean and moving to America have any direct impact on the book you have written?
NoViolet: The book deals with Zimbabwe in the last 10 years; it is a story of a country that is coming undone, and is falling apart; that is suffering for the first time since independence, a period of instability, highest inflation in the world, political violence, and social structure unravelling. So, that environment makes the book what it is, because it is a book about undergoing crises.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Must a good book be about politics?
NoViolet: No, obviously not, it doesn’t have to be, it’s just what I care about at this particular time.
And this is also interesting (see link below):
An Interview with NoViolet Bulawayo
Photo by Mark Pringle.
Where do you think you learned to tell a story?
I was raised on orature – all around me people just told stories like it was breathing, but it was really my late grandmother, Gog’ NaEdeni who sat us down to stories every night as kids, and my pops, who shared his mother’s love for story, who really made an impact. Without those two I doubt I’d be the kind of writer I am today.
Have you ever stolen a book?
No, not a book, I stole like, books as a kid. I know how it sounds, but how else was I supposed to get them, through prayer? I mean nobody was trying to buy me books, and the libraries, besides being far, had a lousy limit of two books at a time, which didn’t work for me at all coz I was a voracious reader. Thankfully my thievery stopped around high school but of course by then my love affair with books had turned into a marriage.
Read the complete above interview here
The book is about the politics in Zimbabwe but it is also about Darling, Chipo, Bastard, Godknows, Sbho and Stina and about how Darling’s Aunt Fostalina comes to get her and take her to Destoyedmichygan. It is about the Prophet Revelations Bitchington Mborro and the Holy Chariot people and Mother Bones and Uncle Kojo from Ghana, about Tshake Zulu in Shadybrook Nursing Home and playing games like Find Bin Laden. It is about lives that we can only imagine but that NoViolet Bulawayo (Elizabeth Tshele) brings to life for us. And it is about leaving one’s country.
Darling’s friend Stina once said: “…leaving your country is like dying, and when you come back you are like a lost ghost returning to earth, roaming around with a missing gaze in your eyes. I don’t want to be that when I go back to my country, but then I don’t really know because will Paradise (the shantytown) be there when I return? Will Mother of Bones be there when I return? Will Bastard and Godknows and Sbho and Stina and Chipo and all my friends be there when I return? Will the guava trees be there when I return? Will Paradise, will everything, be the same when I return?
Stina also said “a country is a Coca-Cola bottle that can smash on the floor and disappoint you.”
The idea of needing new names comes from an innocent game the children play based upon the television show ER. Sbho explains that she has seen it on TV in Harare and it is “what they do in a hospital in America. In order to do this right, we need new names. I am Dr. Bullet (Sbho says), she is beautiful, and you are Dr. Roz, he is tall, Sbho says, nodding at me.(Darling)”
This is a powerful read and you don’t have to know a thing about politics in Zimbabwe unless you want to find out more than the book tells you! I think this book works for both adults and young adults who hunger for truth in fiction.
Addition: Bulawayo’s novel wins Etisalat Prize
I sat down just to sample this book because my library copy had 75 holds on it and I thought I should get started if I intended to finish on time. It was a finalist for the 2013 Scotia Bank Giller Prize and I had waited three and a half months to get it from the library. Well the sampling turned into 90 pages and I had read Book One Part One and it was lunch time. This was my first work by this writer.
There is a short two page background on the battle of Stalingrad and then the story begins: “The train was running late.” There had been “several unscheduled stops between Basel and Zurich”.
“She had been on the train now close to fourteen hours.” Initially, the conductor had been very attentive and been in and out of her first class compartment offering tea and a variety of explanations to account for the unscheduled stops, all somewhat different but equally boring to the passenger. The woman’s companion in the compartment was an eighteen year old boy in black clothing who did not say a word in the first six hours. He had a wonky eye and shiny black shoes. It was unclear whether he was a boarding school student or a clerk. He was very short.
The boy appears to want to open a conversation or, rather, he smiles occasionally and gives that impression. He has retrieved a sketch book from his knapsack and the woman observes “a callus on his middle finger such as is formed by the routine use of a pen”. Their eyes keep returning to the other person’s eyes and finally he says to her “I got into a tussel.” Thus he explains to her how he got the wonky eye, introduces himself as Robert Seidel and asks her if she is any good at sports in reply to which she laughs and says that she is forty and “too old for games.”
Their conversation ends when a group of men dressed in French uniforms smelling of alcohol and tobacco push into the compartment and arrange themselves on the remaining seats. They began flirting with the woman and teasing the boy. The men speak only French and begin to use the boy as a translator so that they can speak to the woman. Thus we learn that she is married and her husband was a soldier. She joins in the game for awhile but tires of it and eventually addresses one of the men in perfect French and makes it clear that his advances are unwanted and his commanding officer might need to be contacted. The men leave in the direction of the second class seating and the boy and woman laugh over her expertise in French and talk more about her husband’s war experience and the boy’s eye injury and his step-family and why he is going home. He also tells her his biological father was a famous detective with the last name of Teuben.
Once they arrive in Vienna the story begins to come from alternate points: from Robert Seidel and from Anna Beer. We are given more and more fine detail as we journey with each of these persons and they try to reestablish themselves in Vienna.Robert has been off at boarding school in Switzerland for several years while the war changed the face of Vienna and Anna has also been abroad where she left after a marital disturbance. She has not seen her husband for nine years but still has her key to the apartment they lived in and returns there to find he is not there although he had notified her that he would be returning there.
Robert arrives at his home to find his mother in a state and the home in charge of a crippled maid (the crooked maid of the title) named Eva and in complete disarray. His step-father is unconscious in hospital from a fall out a window apparently after an argument with Robert’s step-brother Wolfgang. In one of the bedrooms he also finds Poldi, a woman apparently married to Wolfgang, bedridden and listening to opera music on a victrola. It would be a challenge to imagine a more bizarre set of circumstances. His mother appears more interested in claiming his wallet and the money therein than in his journey or his state of health.
In her apartment, Anna finds the living room sofa made up as a bed and “a pair of boots stood at the end, dirty socks stuffed in their shafts”, “a rumpled blanket flung over the backrest” and “spotted with filth”, a photo “above their marital bed, of a young woman in a negligee, lying propped up on cushions”, “a palm-sized smudge, more black than red” below a light switch, “a roll of Reichsmark, now defunct” and a noisy row going on two floors below.
Conversation with Eva tells Robert that she came from an orphanage where she lived for seven years. Robert has been away at school for six years. Eva keeps an eye on Robert’s mother as far as the reader can discern but she doesn’t cook or clean. A nurse at the hospital tells Robert that gossip has it that both his step-father and his step-brother made use of Eva sexually: : “It happens in the best of families, you know.”
And as if this is not enough, Robert finds himself being followed by a vagrant man wearing a red scarf and whom he first saw at the station when he arrived in Vienna.
The entire book continues at this pace and it is very very hard to put down. When I read the following in the Acknowledgements I realized what was somewhat familiar about the style. Vyleta writes
“Structurally, the book owes much to Dickens. I read Our Mutual Friend early into its writing, and took note of Dickens’s daring in stacking incident upon incident (and coincidence upon coincidence); of his ability to connect characters high and low through crime, family scandal, and the brittle threads of chance; of his book’s unstable tone that drifts from comedy to tragedy and back and is capable, despite its author’s much-decried sentimentalism, of calling forth real emotion; and of his deft management of the book’s vast cast (Dickens would have made a good film director).
An extremely satisfying read. I am looking forward to reading both Pavel & I and The Quiet Twin.