I grew up with some very stupid ideas about Canada, most easily summed up by the bumbling drunks played by Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis in the classic Hamlet takeoff Strange Brew. I say this mostly for the benefit of a particular Torontonian (that right, Jim?), but also because it’s a convenient-enough intro to this week’s near-parliamentary or -Senatorial digression1, winged (I really wish the past tense of wing were wung2) for you.
Of the many books that came out last year, two of my favorites were from the Great White North, sort of3. Darren O’Donnell’s first novel Your Secrets Sleep With Me (Coach House Books, Toronto) left me as winded as I was when I recently caught up to the end of Michel Houellebecq’s The Elementary Particles4. I’ve called Secrets5 “a bible for the dispossessed, a prophecy so full of hope it’s crushing” elsewhere (and I’ll stick to that summation), but suffice it to say that it shares with the second of the aforementioned favorites, Corey Frost’s The Worthwhile Flux (Conundrum, Montreal) [and Houellebecq's book too, for that matter], the characteristic of being a window onto my favorite late current in literary production, that of the sublimely possible.
I received Flux in a parcel of mail sent seemingly randomly from the Torontonian referenced above, a man who however knows my tastes in books6. I read Frost’s earlier tome, My Own Devices (also Conundrum), a couple years back in a state of giddy anticipation after the first of its many antitravel or “untravel” pieces, in which Frost or a fictional counterpart suffers mightily — horrendous intestinal difficulties, language barriers, anything else you can think of — on a literal and very metaphorical trip round the world. Of the longer narratives in Devices, though, for my money nothing comes close to the explosion of wonder between the coded jumble of sentences in Flux‘s pieces. Frost wrote them for performance, originally, and their fractured points of view and giddy linguistic flights belie the fact. I once saw him perform at Quimby’s here in Chicago, typically fresh on the tail end of a bad case of the flu and a consequently abbreviated stint on the Perpetual Motion Roadshow back in 2003. In the memorized and I suspect at least slightly improvised performance, Frost keyed up some bass-heavy trancelike music which seemed to fabricate an urgency behind the giddiness of his fractured narrative. In short, though I enjoyed the performance enough, I wasn’t quite convinced, and it would seem that putting pieces of this nature into print would deaden them. Such is not the case. And here’s why.
The first piece in Flux (“A Few Advanced Yo-yo Tricks”) begins on a train. I began it on a bus. “Two people are travelling7 on a train. Suddenly there is an accident.” These are the only words on its first spread, opposite a photo of boxcars running along a track cut into a dirty gray hillside in an unknown locale. (In fact, the book’s full of Frost’s photos from locales around the world.) This particular morning the bus was crowded with commuters headed east downtown on the Chicago Avenue line. It was earlier than normal for me. The bus lurched to a stop at one of the many nondescript corners between Western and Damen, sending a short woman, standing with a very large bag at my right, careening down the center of the compartment, taking out a younger sort of gangsta guy on her way. It caught my attention, but only briefly. I turned the page: “But they’re both okay.” The gangsta dude and the woman embraced each other on their way up from the bus’s floor, the woman then prizing her very large bag and apologizing profusely, the gangsta almost tenderly brushing the dirt off her shoulder. The Chicago denizens behind me roared a chorus of cheers and the whole compartment erupted then in applause. The gangsta’s face darkened a shade.
Moments like these, when a work of art so utterly (and stupidly simply) crystallizes the world around you, imbues it with if not any particular significance then at least a beauty apropos of the damned uncanny nature of human experience turned literary…these moments I find so rare as to be things of indescribable beauty. It’s a kind of simple verisimilitude, yes, but one taken to another level, a feeling of simultaneous parallel experience, maybe, the possibility of a second plane of lives, two trains on the same track each only occasionally departing from the other’s course, and that only to merge again and shock you blind.
To maximize these moments, move to a North American or European urban center (if not there already) and read The Worthwhile Flux on the trains and buses that ferry you to and from your workplace. Read slowly. Spend a moment between each page staring into the eyes of your fellow travelers, even for a few seconds after they’ve noticed your gaze. From the third spread: “A nuclear device is stolen from a former Soviet Republic, but it is soon recovered.”
You will find titles such as these:
–5 Minutes With the Communist Manifesto (“The Communist Manifesto walks slowly out of the water and up the beach. It is absolutely naked….”)
–Everthing I Know About Aphids
–5 Minutes With the Global Economy (“Two people are travelling on a plane. One turns to the other. He is of the opinion, it seems, that the North-South divide could be resolved if the labour markets were completely liberalized so that skilled workers could migrate to developed countries, work, and send money home to their families. The second traveller considers this carefully. Finally, he turns to the first traveller. “I am in a lot of pain,” he says….”)
–A Farewell to Q
–5 Minutes With the Ground
–5 Minutes Without the Ground
…and the title track, about among other things a trip to an abortion clinic and the demise of a relationship and conspiracy theorists riding on trains, forever between points, in flux.
In a book like this, in which clarity of vision bursts from the space between the sentences, from the motion of turning a page, the fadeout requires a slow fizzle, it would seem. The end is beautifully chosen here — a piece called “It’s Bits World,” beginning thusly…
“They were looking for a total transformation of mundane experience into bliss. It had become necessary. The winter came fast and hard, and it stayed a long time. The potatoes froze in the ground, there was not enough wood for the stove, and the modem was too slow. There was a war, and people were being asked to recycle aluminum. It was the off-season. I am so sleepy right now, but I’ll tell you something: you should regard every anomaly as an opportunity to be awestruck.”
Corey Frost is purportedly coming to Chicago with Sherwin Tija and some others. Go to his show. The ever-industrious Mr. Gleason-Allured is working on securing a venue for May 12 or 13, I believe. Stay tuned for more.
1) Dare I use the much-vaunted “nuclear option,” here? Do you realize that the longest filibuster on record is that of the old coot Strom Thurmond, former and now-dead Senator of my home state, South Carolina? I believe he was attempting to forestall the passage of the much-needed and -appreciated American civil rights legislation just post-midcentury, last century of course.
2) like maybe string/strung, hang/hung, ring/rang/rung, drink/drunk….
3) I say “sort of” because, though I believe the man grew up in either Ontario or Quebec, Frost seems to spend much of his time between Montreal and New York, not to mention flitting around the globe as evidenced by much of his writing.
4) Absolute must-read, I think, though others disagree. Just Google the man’s name sometime.
5) Also must-read.
6) These footnotes are compounding into infinity, and starting to seem a mite ridiculous to me, but one more is in order: said Torontonian’s actually Jim Munroe, and he’s likewise got a particularly good book that came out last year. An Opening Act of Unspeakable Evil, it’s called. I prefer his Everyone in Silico, but I like all his stuff, really. He’s a pal.
7) OK, one more. Sorry. The spelling of this word is, I would prefer, “traveling.” One L. But I’ll assume the difference is product of the unholy alliance that remains between Canada and Britain re the spelling of stuff like labor/labour or color/colour, traveling/travelling, etc…