issue 98 supplement

Bitches Be Crazy

Bitches Be Crazy by Chandra Mayor

“Bitches be crazy,” the butch says, shaking
her head. Her grey tie is tight around her neck
like her own fingers pressing greedily into
the windpipe of the Hot Nurse just before
she comes. This butch is made of Lego,
her shoulders stiff, neatly snapped
into place each morning. She is always
rehearsing for the longed-for camera,
the good dyke porn. She imagines
she is turning her head to attend to the tight
body of the hired redhead, the one who is rumoured
to smell like candy; her whole body will pivot
at the waist. Her nails trimmed, her small
fingers pointed and melded together like GI Joe
in the basement, her arm will piston at the shoulder.
She is a Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robot with a secret
lever in the small of her back. In her head she counts:
1, 2, 3, 4
1, 2, 3, 4
She reminds herself: “I am fucking the shit out
of her,” and the sound of her own voice excites
her, makes her hard.

Now she leans forward on the couch to take
another hit off the bong, slippery smoke and thick
glass hard against her lips. In her mind she is sorting
and stroking her dildos: the dolphin, the rabbit,
the buzzing nest of bullets and batteries. The thick
black cock with corded veins for the Yoga Teacher
when she bends her hard over the ledge of bed.
The world is best when bisected, sorted
into two tidy bins with fitted lids:
The girls who want her cock.
The bros who do not.

There are other creatures who come
to her in nightmares, women who fuck
themselves gorgeously with their own messy
hands. They open their mouths wide and grunt.
There are no pretty, breathy moans.
They are laughing at her. They are slick
and glistening wetly with sweat like enormous
slugs, sucking and smacking, rubbing each
other urgently. In the nightmare, this butch
is a tiny red speck of ant, her tie is a taut leash
and her insect fingers scrabble uselessly at the knot.
All their cunts are cavernous maws, undulating,
inescapable, and slap down onto her face. She can’t
breathe, she panics and she cries. She is drowning
in salt and mucus, the muscles of her sleeping thighs
clamped together until they ache and seize.

Back on the couch in her apartment with her bros,
she knows she is not asleep now. She knows
it is the smoke that has blurred her precise
edges, smudged the clean gaze of the camera,
accelerated her pulse until it races. It sounds
like a hockey card smacking the spinning spokes
of a BMX. She thinks of the girl with long hair and
tattoos, the one who left a red handprint
on the butch’s smooth egg face when she slapped
her at the bar. The butch took a picture of her
red check with her phone, shows it now
to everyone in the room. “I’m taking out
a protective order against that crazy bitch,”
she says. “I don’t know what she’ll do next.
What if she burns down my apartment?
What if she’s waiting for me tonight, outside
my door, with a fucking bat?” The friends
nod; they are stoned and they don’t really care.
The butch feels her cheeks flush, and she is angry.
The sting, the speed, the surety of that flat-handed
slap; the dark room of witnesses, whispering; the girl
laughing. Someone has to teach her a lesson, tie
her burning hands behind her back, seal up all
her duplicitous mouths. The butch smiles, tucks
her shirt a little tighter under her belt.
1, 2, 3, 4
1, 2, 3, 4

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REVIEW: Chris Eaton, a Biography

Chris Eaton, a Biography
By Chris Eaton
BookThug (2013)

Read by Caitlin Stall-Paquet

Chris Eaton, a Biography, is not that. Just below this title appear the words ‘A Novel by Chris Eaton’. This juxtaposition reveals much about the book right off the bat. Its blurb divulges some of the inspiration for the book: that is, mainly, the question “What happens when we Google ourselves?” Chris Eaton, a Biography is an attempt to answer this question through an endless-seeming thread of stories and pieces of lives. It might be a biography after all. The thing is just that it’s fiction.

On the first page, a vague narrator tells us about one Chris Eaton amongst many others, about his family and its men that went to war “And oh, how they died!” That sentence not only hooks from the start, but also sums up the book. We are invited to episodically follow various ridiculously extravagant and eccentric people or boring, vain and selfish ones throughout their lives that, big surprise, end in death. But that exclamation point also forewarns as to the incredible humour with which this often sincere and painful book is carried out.

As might be expected due to its vague subject matter, this novel is a cornucopia of anecdotes, adventures, comedies, tragedies and facts both true and completely made up, but all very real within the world of the story. Eaton has an amazing way of telling the reader that he is lying by weaving myth into reality quite obviously and successfully. One of the characters who has lived underground his whole life tells us that he does not know if he is under “New York, or Arkansas, or Colorado, or Atlantis” or even is this dimension. Eaton places mythical mysteries along the same lines as things (and locations) we accept as self-evident truths, throwing his hoard of Chris Eatons into the mix, while retaining perfect tone and wit. The result is an addictive, often insane and incredibly creative version of the world that could very well be true, but for some reason isn’t quite.

There is much about Eaton’s writing that ties its ambitions to the great authors who have had fascinations with “everything,” be it David Foster Wallace, Vladimir Nabokov or Roberto Bolaño. There is a similar passion and obsessiveness in Eaton’s writing. Regrettably, however, Eaton tends to lapse out of the narration’s thread and too explicitly defines the story’s themes through direct address. Eaton needs to trust his reader in these moments rather than directing a giant figure to “the point.” It’s a shame, but only a small one because even at those moments, the writing is smart and engaging and makes the reader want to search for the clues that tie all of the threads together. Ultimately, Eaton’s book has probably sent many readers back to the great question engine of our era, the true hub of fact and fiction: Google.

REVIEW: The Devil and the Detective

The Devil and the Detective
By John Goldbach
Coach House Books (2013)

Read by Tom Burke

John Goldbach’s debut novel, The Devil and the Detective, cannot easily be folded into one genre. It’s a detective novel at its core, yes, but it’s not an iconic Raymond Chandler detective story. It’s not really in the vein of an offbeat Jonathan Ames caper, either. It’s noir, yes, but, as Padgett Powell’s dust jacket blurb purports, “it’s noirtire, or satoir.”

The story begins with a straightforward detective novel-punch. “Robert. Bob. Bob James. The Detective,” a.k.a., our whiskey-pickled protagonist narrator, receives a phone call in the middle of the night. There’s been a murder. James’ newest client, Elaine Andrews, exclaims, “Gerald has been stabbed in the chest!”

Cue the bullheaded, contemplative gumshoe who accepts the gig with little to go on, other than his own chronic fatigue and high-octane head fog. But don’t let the ham-handed actions of the protagonist be confused with the sharpness of his narration. Goldbach’s writing is tight and aware throughout.

The plot takes interesting turns—deceit, corruption, brutality, sex, etc. But the book isn’t just plot-driven; Goldbach’s exploration of the human condition takes interesting turns as well—love, loss, lust, friendship, aloneness, etc. Indeed, there is a curious thrust of emotion that fuels the novel’s urgency, and it does so in subtle, highly effective ways. Desperation is a key theme of the book—a detective’s desperation, a seductress’s desperation, life and death desperation, and, more to the point, how desperation motivates and modifies human behavior.

Goldbach bends heavily towards philosophical inquiry. But instead of weighing down the narrative, he provides relatively bite-sized philosophical tidbits within the text. This kind of philosophical discourse is sometimes delivered via the narrator’s internalizations, but the bulk of the rumination appears in dialogue between the detective and his trusty flower-delivery-boy-sidekick, Darren. Darren—a young dude with an old hatchback—may not be the first character one would expect to engage in any sort of philosophical conversation, but Goldbach makes it work.

The sum total of this story’s detective-narrator’s philosophical contemplation of existence and morality has weight. Bob James is a bona fide loner, but in the end, his empathy outweighs all else. Smart twists in the story require the detective to exercise his resolve—to not only make decisions, but to act on them, too.

Like the empathetic loner Bob James, The Devil and the Detective is a book that treats its readers very well. The novella-type length feels right for this story. It’s highly engaging and moves quickly; I read it in one sitting. The prose is ultra clean. Its ideas may appear simple on the page, but they’re actually quite dense. Plus, the book is funny, smart-funny, great-funny, it’s its own kind of funny, like jokes about Rick James and Magnum P.I., and a drunk’s irresistible compulsion towards ice water to combat his hangovers.

REVIEW: Bone and Bread

Bone and Bread

By Saleema Nawaz
House of Anansi (2013)

Read by Fazeela Jiwa

Saleema Nawaz’s debut novel, Bone and Bread, explores the “deep trenches” of familial bonds. Sisters Beena and Sadhana are orphaned early in their lives; their father dies of a heart attack in his Montreal bagel shop and, years later, their mother chokes on a meal prepared for her by her daughters. This trauma manifests itself throughout the lives of both sisters in opposing but intertwined ways.
The novel opens with a contemporary tragedy: it’s been six months since Sadhana died suddenly in her Montreal apartment. At this time, Beena and her 18-year-old son, Quinn, live in Ottawa, avoiding each other in silent guilt.

Nawaz contextualizes Sadhana’s death by revealing, little by little, the chronology of Beena’s life, and every memory revealed contours Beena’s present-day narrative. Movement between time periods occurs without warning, as Beena’s past is intricately connected to her present. Nawaz repeats the spaces of the past in the present; the bagel shop, the apartment above it, and the streets of the Mile End are common settings throughout.

In the tangled web of Beena and Sadhana’s relationship, feelings of intense closeness and frigid separation exist simultaneously. Nawaz captures the complexity of blood bonds as the fundamental tension between intimacy and distance, and her tale is littered with examples. For instance, Beena and Sadhana’s menstrual cycles are synced. As teenagers, they stop bleeding at the same time, but for vastly different reasons: Beena has become pregnant at 16 after a tryst with one of the “bagel boys” from Uncle’s shop, while Sadhana battles her first round with anorexia. In the same hospital that night, they are separated by their conditions: one nears death as the other gives life.

Later, the sisters and Quinn move into their own tiny apartment. Here, their physical proximity is countered with emotional distance, a chasm created by “Mama’s absence” combined with secrets and lies. Beena muses, “Maybe too much closeness keeps people apart…Self-preservation.” This is Nawaz’s culminating analysis of the blood bond: bound by histories of death and illness that no outsider can comprehend, the sisters use silence to build walls and define their identities.

Bone and Bread is a deeply interior novel. Despite Nawaz’s eloquent descriptions of Beena’s existential crises, Beena’s dialogue is benign and sparse throughout the book, giving the impression that much is left un-communicated. The heavy silences that pervade muffle what little is communicated, resulting in misunderstanding and obfuscation.

Though at times relieving, silence is never the resolution. If the noise represents the weight of everything unspoken in Beena’s life, then her relief is fleeting because it is fabricated—in her life, silence becomes just as jarring as noise. In this novel full of mis(sed)communication, Nawaz infuses the act of dialogue with healing. The end of the novel hints at a more communicative future. In the character of Quinn, who “thinks he can get to the bottom of everything if we just keep everything if we just keep talking,” Nawaz imbues hope.

REVIEW: The Politics of Knives

The Politics of Knives

By Jonathan Ball
Coach House Books (2012)

Read by Katherine Sehl

Jonathan Ball’s oeuvre is quickly subsuming every form of art, his previous poetry collection, Clockfire (2010), having explored the violence of theatre and in Ex Machina (2009)—a book about books. The Politics of Knives chooses film as its medium of focus and as with his previous publications, Ball interrogates the medium by bringing its mechanics under scrutiny and exploring the ways in which it enacts violence through its mode of communication.

The conceptual framework behind the book and much of his other work is in part Ball’s extension of a meditation Žižek puts forth in his book Violence: “What if, however, humans exceed animals in their capacity for violence precisely because they speak?” As Ball explains in an interview with Open Book Toronto, “I think a further violence, a more personal and political violence, occurs when we use language to develop narrative.” For Ball, there is a parallel to be drawn between the way language and narrative are elicited for the same purpose as violence: to impose an order on things.

The project behind The Politics of Knives, then, is twofold: to poetically examine the violence of cinematic narrative while remaining conscious of the capacity language has for violence in doing so. As a result, language becomes slippery and ruptured. Near-narratives either falter and break off or linger edgily on syntactical ambiguity and the poetic line cuts sharply, like a knife.

This process is most evident in the poem “Psycho” which rather evidently, is a poetic “re-watching” of Hitchcock’s classic horror film. Much like the steady lens of a camera, the poem presents images intended to educe setting and possibly tone: “Water falls thrumming, hard on motel. Vacancy wet, / mother in window” (39).

As Norman Bates (the soon-to-be-knife wielder) looks on through a peephole into Marion’s room, the reader and riled poetic narrator are forced into complicity, “in holes place our eyes”… “watching as he watches” (43). When the poem reaches the dramatic murder scene, although the camera’s passive gaze is still coldly persistent, the reader/watcher has transgressed from merely watching to violently entering the narrative, conflated with the scene’s murderer: “She’s dead while the camera / keeps looking, as we stalk through this room mopped so clean” (45).

All of the collection’s poems are connected by themes of violence, but they range in form, voice, and content. The titular piece of the collection enacts a violence of censorship, appearing as if some government agency used black censor bars to occlude portions of the poetic text. “K. Enters the Castle” following Kafka’s The Castle, imagines K. entering the Castle by becoming a camera.

As with all of Ball’s books, The Politics of Knives was released under Creative Commons license, with remixes allowed and encouraged—an appropriate gesture that enables Ball’s readers to brandish their own knives on his text.

REVIEW: 1996

1996
By Sara Peters
House of Anansi (2013)

Read by Sarah Burgoyne

“From the beginning / you should know I’m embellishing / but was I ever twelve?” –Sara Peters’ 1996.

The violent pinks and blues in cascading chevrons on the front cover of Sara Peters’ debut collection, 1996, is the reader’s first clue that these poems are not afraid to be in your face. What is striking about Peters’ debut collection is her ability to marry the childlike and the sinister. Peters’ poetry shifts the gaze from the luminous kitchen of traditional childhood poetry to the ragged screen door against which June bugs slam like dark and threatening secrets. Realities of vulnerability, beauty and cruelty are brought to a child’s eye-level, in which the reader is simultaneously on the “brink” of everything and has already gone too far.

Peters presents us with traditional-looking lyrics cranked to scalding at points where two sisters practice for their “future rapes,” and the mother of Jérémy Bastien (a four year-old beaten to death in Montreal in 2008) dresses him in long sleeves to hide his wounds, turning the radio on full-blast. The poet lets night enter her poetry, following in the footsteps of Elizabeth Bishop (like Peters, a child of Nova Scotia) and Frank Bidart whose poem “Ellen West” one cannot help but think of when reading Peters’ “Mary Ellen Spook”, which is based on the life of 67-times exorcised Anneliese Michel. Peters’ poetry aligns itself with Bishop’s in its miniaturist’s attention to detail; each image is as meticulous as the lettuce which in “I Understood Our Time Was Running Out” is chosen “carefully / as a ball gown, comparing ruffles.” The precision and simplicity of Peters’ writing leaves no room for affectation, making the poems refreshingly insightful and new, bringing to light that second (yes, there is one) when “the sparkling water goes still.”

1996 creates a new symbolic language for thinking about childhood. The “X’s” that remain on the child’s calves after the ballet laces are taken off, the sunburn in the part of a young girl’s hair, and the seabound doll torso “armless legless sucked and beaten clean” function as name tags. What’s more is there is no surprise or naiveté in the voice of Peters’ speakers, giving the poems a certain agelessness that echoes the line from “Mary Ellen Spook”: “and always / these questions.” The undomestication at work in 1996 is enough to cause any reader to rethink a purely optimistic aestheticization of childhood. The questions 1996 confronts us with are tragic, volatile, and utterly important.

1996 takes Canadian poetry off the beaten track, running it hotter than we can stand. Childhood sheds its pretty scales to reveal bones as sharp as needles. As a new voice, Sara Peters is refreshing, brave and profound. She pulls us through the familiar field but does not lead us to a magical grove or secret wardrobe, but rather to a house “burning unattended in the dark.”