Monday, October 12, 2009

Michael Turner, 8x10

In an article on Vancouver author Michael Turner in Quill and Quire (July/August 2009), Dan Rowe writes:

As the 47-year-old Vancouver author sees it, the seemingly random flow – or non-flow – of events was the best way to tackle the novel’s chief subjects: war, immigration, and dislocation. “I wanted to create something as open as possible to the contemporary world,” he says. Part of that process included his decision to excise proper nouns. With precise names and places, Turner explains, “you immediately narrow … the possibilities.” The book opens with quotes from both Grimm’s Fairy Tales and The Arabian Nights, which Turner cites as examples of texts that benefit from a lack of names and context. “You can think of them [as taking place] in your own backyard,” he says.

This opens Turner’s explanation for his latest published work, the novel 8 x 10 (Toronto ON: Doubleday Canada, 2009). Michael Turner has always worked to challenge how a story gets told, and even displaced, turning expectation around and even on its head, with perhaps the most notable example being the author of Canada’s only poetry collection turned into film, Hard Core Logo (1993), which spawned more than a couple of further projects, including the graphic novel version of the film, and a “making of” memoir by the screenwriter, as well as a repackaging of the original book as “novel,” without a word of the text otherwise changed. It bears out asking, does a movie turn poetry books into novels?

Over the years, Canadian mainstream has remained hesitant in acknowledging challenging literary works, denying the average reader’s thirst for doing the required work to get through something that isn’t immediately straightforward and simple. Worthy books aren’t lazy, so why compete for the attention of lazy readers? There are only a handful of fiction writers in Canada really able to do what so many more wish they could, twisting the genre in new and exciting directions, and all without losing any sense of what is possible, including David Chariandy, Aaron Peck, Margaret Christakos, Nicole Markotic, Suzette Mayr, Martha Baillie, Marianne Apostolides, Jon Paul Fiorentino, John Lavery, Diane Schoemperlen and Ken Sparling, most of whom are still relatively unknown to larger audiences.

She was depressed. She tried to hide it but he knew her too well. Pretty soon he was all over her.

What the hell’s the matter with you? Why are you being such a jerk?

I don’t know, just tired I guess.

They were in the kitchen, sitting at opposite ends of their new antique table, a thermos of tea between them. She was doing her best, but he kept at it.

That reporter’s been phoning again. I thought you were going to take care of it.

She got up, started walking. No idea where, just walking.

Look at you—you’re walking in circles!

She went into the bedroom and flopped onto the bed. If she were standing she would have a view of seven tree-lined ridges winding their way down to a silver strip of water. But lying there, all she got was a light blue monochrome.

He stopped in the doorway. You haven’t been the same since the robbery.

She said nothing.

After a while, Turner’s stories seem to shuffle into place, figuring out where the end of one might connect into the beginning of a previous through so many fragments, while knowing, the whole time, that whether or not these connections are real, it might be completely irrelevant. There is something about the way each new story, each new fragment of whatever the larger narrative is, somehow makes each previous fragment shift, and shimmer, however slight. Kristjana Gunnars once famously wrote about memory being a deck of cards, with each new card playing off what came before, and these, Turner’s accumulated 8 x 10, might be far more like a deck of cards slowly and painstakingly dealt than pieces of some larger single-image puzzle. Even a half-completed puzzle doesn’t necessarily shift so easily once the finished image comes into view. Instead, Turner’s stories have a shift that feel simpler, yet on closer inspection, have overlap but always something that keeps them separate. It’s almost as though some of the stories pick up where some previous left off, but in some alternate universe, with essential details changed, shifted, switched or left out altogether. Somehow, instead of distracting, the structure allows the reader to focus on the essential parts of the stories themselves, as Turner works his crafty way through a series of fictions-as-fiction.

The human brain can’t help but make sense of the surrounding chaos, and this is where Turner outdoes previous constructions such as his American Whiskey Bar (1997) or The Pornographer’s Poem (2000), writing a complex set of stories in the simplest fashion, and letting the reader figure out how they go together, even if, in fact, they don’t. This is a book about relationships, and about interactions—between people, and between the stories themselves—on what exactly compels us, distracts us, and makes any of us do what it is we do. Less a collection of stories or a novel in the conventional sense than a contemporary portrait that, through keeping details of time and geography and other traditional placements out of the picture, will manage to remain contemporary for some time.

[Michael Turner launches 8x10 at the ottawa international writers festival; see his 12 or 20 questions here]

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