What is it with French flaps these days? I hate the goddamn things. Sure, I suppose they look pretty and expensive, but books saddled with them almost always have tighter bindings, and that makes them more difficult to hold open, and all that extra weight near the outside edge of the book means that they can flop closed on you at exactly the wrong time. They are just a pain in the ass. I know, I know, Ed had told us that we shouldn’t talk about the cover when we review a book, that treating the thing like an artifact is out of bounds. Ed is wrong (or full of shit, depending on how much he’s irritated you on any given day). In an ideal world—and in the academic world as well, which is far from ideal—we talk about “texts” rather than “works” or “books”. Texts are these mystical abstract things that enter our minds directly, free from encumbrances like paper or ink or the tightness of the binding or that nagging pain we get from sitting too long. The problem is, that when one is assessing the quality of a thing rather than, say, trying to explain why it conforms to neo-Marxist ideology, the way we interact with that thing matters. The conditions matter, if only because we need to understand if something other than the thing (the book!) is affecting our judgement. I don’t care how good it is, if a book is printed in such a way that it’s always flopping closed or the type runs into the binding or whatever, I’m going to get pissed off at the book and that’s going to affect what I say about it. Ed tends to miss details like that (but then, any long-time listener to The Bat Segundo Show will know that there’s lots that Ed misses, like when an author is trying to explain—if only through an increasingly aggressive tone of voice—how asking the same questions six different ways won’t change their answer, whether Ed agrees or not, and would he please change the fucking subject already). Anyway, I’m sick of French flaps.
I bought this book because it takes place in Kensington Market, a neighbourhood that’s about a ten minute walk from my apartment. A woman named Phillipa Maria Donahue, after leaving her home of Cincinnati for her asshole husband, having an abortion and becoming a housewife, decides that the comforts of Yorkville are too constricting (oh that we could all have such problems), and figures that just disappearing into the sloppy mess of the Market is an ideal escape, a way to experience a genuine life, genuinely lived. Or something. She changes her name to Nova Philip, rents a cheap room, gets some new clothes, and befriends a charming but mostly harmless local troublemaker (who is just as big an asshole as her husband, but who is a different kind of asshole, so she likes him) named Tommy Gunn. What’s up with all the ridiculous character names I’ve been coming across lately? It’s like a group of middle-aged Wisconsin housewives made a list of potential gangsta-rap pseudonyms and started handing it out to writers. It’s embarrassing.
Dearing is said to live in, or at least around, the Market, so I find it curious that the scenes set in Yorkville ring more true. Kensington is painted as a dangerous, almost feral place at times, particularly at night, and that just hasn’t been my experience of it. Granted it’s not the safest place in the city after dark, but it’s not the crazed wilderness of junkies and muggers that it’s made out to be. Perhaps in the intervening years (the novel is set in 1999) gentrification has set in, but I doubt it has done so to that degree. I was pleased that I recognized the shops and divisions that “Nova” eventually wanders into and describes, including Courage My Love, the store for which the novel is named (although given where Dearing’s protagonist rents her room and her reasons for being in the Market to begin with I think Asylum might have been a more appropriate title, though certainly a less appealing one). I even use similar names for the streets (Fish Street, Clothes Avenue, Vegetable Avenue).
I’m afraid to say that, though I enjoyed the book, I didn’t really like any of the characters. Phillipa/Nova remains a tourist at the end of the novel, despite her assertion otherwise, and her sense of entitlement doesn’t seem to have been stolen from her, despite an act of violence in the closing pages. Her husband is an asshole, and quite inconsistent at times. He doesn’t have a personality so much as he’s just repeatedly positioned in such a way that he irritates or offends Phillipa/Nova. We aren’t meant to like him, but he winds up being a generic roadblock instead of a real human being. Tommy Gunn is all about the tough love, as much a caricature as the husband (Brendan? Dan? was that his name?), just more useful to the protagonist. I almost wish I didn’t enjoy the book, because then I could feel my irritation with its shortcomings is more justified. Maybe ambivalence is a good thing for a book to create in the mind of the reader, I don’t know.
Next: The Projectionist, by Michael Helm.