by Joshua Whitehead
Technology, as described by Merriam Webster, is “the use of science in industry, engineering, etc.” Science? What do I know of science? The mere notion of anything scientific frightens my right-sided brain. I listen to music, I can recognize colours, I am creative, I can (aside from distinguishing between the potential meanings of a winking emoji) recognize emotion. But science? What a terrifying thing for us creative folk. Technology. And what irony I employ in creating this blogpost— writing while I intermittently reshuffle my Maroon 5 playlist (I far too often swoon at that any mention of Levine’s falsetto), check my text messages, delete my Rogers e-bill, crop a photo on Instagram, reply to a tweet, add a quote to Pinterest, and say no to umpteen Candy Crush requests on Facebook. Technology — a word that looms on the peripheries of our consciousness on the daily — brings into mind notions of cohabitation, dependence, necessity, problem solving. It’s with that technologic, cybernetic, modernistic mindset that I invite you into tonight’s main event: Technologies.
Monday night featured six exemplary writers hailing from a variety of locations across Canada; most of whom, I assume, deployed some mode of rapid transportation to get here. Ah, technology!
The first writer we were introduced to was Montreal based Guillaume Morissette. Morissette, along with his new novel, New Tab, strongly utilizes technology, in the form of social media, in order to narrate his semi-autobiographical novel. His style is unique, uncouth, though in the absolute best of ways, sly, and sharp. We are quickly introduced to a world in which smartphones, Facebook, Xbox 360’s, and unconventional parties rule. A world that, amidst being so laden with technology, is lonely, isolating, secluded. A world in which everyday feels like Wednesday and every time someone looks at the clock it reads 4 p.m. A perpetual hump day, no more, no less. Static. Morissette’s protagonist, Thomas, is introduced as having a Facebook conversation with another character, one in which Morissette forgoes the “he said/she said” standard, substituting less personal, less intimate: “he typed/she typed”. This little vignette sets up the tone of the entire novel, the interplay between technology and community, between isolation and psuedo-relations. Something which I for one am used to — and if you are reading this blog I am guessing you are as well.
Morissette’s protagonist reads like Holden Caulfield in the 21st century. A sly, older, Francophone Holden who tumblrs about ‘phonies’ in the aftermath of a 2 a.m. after party. Except now he’s a little more self-conscious (can you imagine?) and into the habit of deciding the correct amount of hair gel to maintain his brooding demeanour. Morissette then introduced us to a vignette in the latter half of his novel in which an eclectic group of tweeting friends with an affinity for sexy firemen, plastic tiaras, and budgeting their drug addictions. Friends are exceptionally skilled in the art of “fucking up”. We’re moved to a bar setting in which Coyote Ugly bar-dancing, poker chip boxers, and fire-red briefs are introduced in a comedic scene. Lastly, Thomas explains to us his extreme dislike for his father’s celebrity crush (a father, who, I’m sure if given the chance would nominate every Wednesday as his weekly #WCW) Pretty Woman actress, Julia Roberts on the premise of nostalgic boners — something which, as Thomas so proclaims, the body always remembers. Surprised? So is our beloved narrator! Make sure to check out Guillaume’s novel, New Tab.
Secondly we were introduced to Peter Norman and his new novel, Emberton. Norman’s protagonist, Lance Blunt, is one secretive fellow. Can you keep a secret? (Lance can’t read or write). Lance ends up working for Emberton Tower, a firmly established publisher of the Emberton Dictionary. Emberton Dictionary, as described by its employees, is like “an inept panhandler — [they] don’t see a lot of change.” The characters we are introduced to are cunning, elusive, and distrustful in every sense of the word. One is Lance’s boss, a nosy, inquisitive villain who is described as perfectly round and “squeezable like a stress ball.” Technology, in Norman’s novel, becomes an interesting concept for us as readers of contemporary literature and asks us a question which constantly circulates in my psyche: how does a printed dictionary, or any printed text we read, exist in a technological age? Technology, for Norman, becomes a menacing thing as it stands in as this monolithic Emberton tower — one that privileges sales crises over seizures. Intrigued? I know I am. I intend to seek at least a partial answer when I pick up my copy of Emberton later this week.
Next was Arjun Basu who read from his latest novel, Waiting for the Man. The novel’s protagonist, Joe, is a successful, yet wildly unhappy, ad copywriter who constantly envisions a man who smells like a clean horse and wears a floppy hat. Joe’s illusory companion, dubbed as ‘The Man,’ tells him to wait on his front steps. Joe does. His simple nothingness turns him into a celebrity, a spectacle, and all of the hipsters come to enhance their ‘coolness’ factor by posing with him (#nofilter). A buzz fills the air as the incessant, tic-tac of intermingling conversations erupt; simultaneously, the tone produced by Joe fills the novel with a buzzing silence as caused by his extreme introspection, his longing loneliness.
Technology, in Basu’s novel, becomes a curatorial thing. The camera’s eye, which is seemingly always pointed at Joe, becomes the lens in which we too look at him. The thing, Joe says, (and I am paraphrasing here) that makes technology popular is democracy, though this is also what makes people wary of it. As we are introduced to a cavalcade of seemingly random communities of people we see as they are consumed entirely by their technologies, their smartphones, their cameras — they are static, unmoving, waiting. I believe, in recalling the title and the overall tone of the novel, that we are, along with Joe, meant to ask, “What are we waiting for?”
The fourth reader of the evening was Diane Schoemperlen who hilariously read from her latest work, By the Book. Schoemperlen’s book, a collection of illustrated stories, is taken from old textbooks in the 19th century. Textbooks, as Schoemperlen describes, which are laden with an angry, dictational, and pedagogic tone. Schoemperlen describes her creative process in terms of this book as being that of a jigsaw, a bricolage, the reinvention of words.
Schoemperlen read an except from the vignette titled “A Nervous Race”, featuring a series of directional phrasings such as “look here” and “turn here”. The mere notion of dictational movement was exhausting. Though, Schoemperlen’s reinvention of the primary text into a new form invites a calm pace and asks for us to look and enjoy as a curious guest, rather than as a time managing tour guide. Schoemperlen turns anger into laughter. Her style lends the pedagogy of the text into an introspective, observational thing. From beautiful idiotic butterflies to bone-licking vultures, By the Book has it all. Within its comedy is a serious contemplation. As Schoemperlen suggests, “It is one thing to see things it is another to notice so you think about them.” What a beautiful note to end on. So if you want to be By the Book then I suggest you buy the book.
Up next was our famed hometown writer Margaret Sweatman, who introduced and read from her latest novel, Mr. Jones. Sweatman’s novel contemplates the necessities of politics in the name of gender. Sweatman writes, “men need politics to be a part of a greater good.” Interesting.
Sweatman approaches the topics of
politics with a hardened subtlety.
Her voice is soft spoken, whispering, as in a kiss. The pastels of her setting are made up
of cashmere sweaters, woollen socks, smells of scotch, cigarettes, soap, raw
onions. Subtle. Homely. Dangerous.
Sweatman reading brings her characters to life: her voice grunts as the brutish Bill Masters and flip-flops into a cheery ‘yoo-hoo’ for the energetic Ethel. We are, in this vignette, introduced to a very serious baby named Lenore, who Bill, a Tom Buchanan-esque alpha male, describes as not being “the laughing type.” Sweatman’s writing is airy, loose, but not without its edge, its pace. It is an inhalation that forces you to choke on your breath. It tickles while it cuts. It smothers while it hugs. I do implore you, if you’re the sadomasochistic type or not, to pick up a copy of Mr. Jones and tread through the pages with an anxious excitement as I intend to do!
Our last reader of the evening was Fred Stenson who read from his novel, Who By Fire. A perfect follow up to Sweatman’s performance. Stenson’s reading style was airy. He elongated his vowels and capitalized on a long sentence structure in order to induce a feeling of aloneness. I could sense the wind whooshing on the cold linoleum floor. I could feel the tinge of bare feet in cold boots. I could hear teacups rattling in china cabinets.
Stenson quickly introduced us to a young boy mimicking his father — a scene which sets up the novel as a whole in terms of duplicity and bifurcation. There is a sense of interconnectivity that is at odds with an impending separation in Stenson’s work. There is an open vastness in the expanse of horizons, an overall quietness; and in said vastness looms industry, the noise, the lights, the confinement of technology. In that, Stenson’s novel presents an interesting tension between naturalism and modernism. A tension that is prevalent in the home and on the horizon. All of this, I argue, is wrapped up in Stenson’s dialogue: “You’re letting the coffee get cold — it had never been cold to begin with.” Absolutely enthralling.
In a later scene two characters discuss their interests in post-secondary education: one being interested in engineering out of province, another in teaching rurally. Both, in the confines of the house, are brought back by sick parents who impede their futures. A sense of failure and regret bubbles in Stenson’s reading of the scene. Again, the notion of interconnectivity is intermittently linked with an impending bifurcation. The stakes are set — the tensions pulled tight.
In returning to the notion of technology and the expansive fear of science I bring us to my last inspiration from Stenson’s novel: the notion of hydrogen embrittlement. This is described as the process in which metals become brittle and fracture from repeated exposure to hydrogen. What a wonderful analogy for the entirety of the novel’s tone; the structure of Stenson’s novel seems fractured: his characters, the house, the setting, all fractured, all brittle.
|The Thin Air Mainstage|
Technology, in the case of Stenson’s novel, is an overflowing thing; modernization foreshadowing the reshaping of deforming relationships. And I think that this notion of deformation and reshaping is the linking metaphor for each of tonight’s performances. Stenson left us with a final quotation in stating, “We’ll keep trying to fix things.” A superb ending which finely wrapped up the evening and set an epitome of not only his novel but of all of the texts the writers explored with us tonight.
From prostitutes with a heart of gold (which may or may not induce nostalgic erections); to round “stress ball” bosses; to newly minted sedentary celebrities eating apples; to beautifully stupid butterflies; to serious babies named Lenore; and to failed engineers contemplating hydrogen, this notion of deformed relationships (with others or with one’s self), and the processes which we deploy in order to reshape them, seem central to each novel. So, as we trudge through our lives, fictional or not, perhaps we too can “keep trying to fix things.”