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book review

Pasha MallaMichelle Siu/The Globe and Mail

In May, 1846, Edgar Allan Poe published part one of "The Literati of New York City," an annotated compendium of the Big Apple's writers and editors, subtitled "Some Honest Opinions at Random Respecting Their Authorial Merits, with Occasional Words of Personality." The series opened with a declaration of purpose, which was to rectify, in Poe's estimation, an ill-informed public perception of the literary scene and its figures. For example: "The most 'popular,' the most 'successful' writers among us [are] persons of mere address, perseverance, effrontery – in a word, busy-bodies, toadies, quacks."

Poe held a particular disdain for "literary quacks [who] court, in especial, the personal acquaintance of those 'connected with the press'" and also reviewers who, "even when penning a voluntary, that is to say, an uninstigated notice of the book of an acquaintance, feel as if writing not so much for the eye of the public as for the eye of the acquaintance, and the notice is fashioned accordingly." There was nothing more despicable in Poe's estimation than this "tissue of flatteries," and he viewed cronyism as anathema to the health of literature.

So, here: I hang out with Mark Medley, who runs Globe Books, as well as Jared Bland, who oversees the Arts section of this paper. I am also friendly with Emily Keeler over at the National Post, I've played basketball and soccer with Walrus and House of Anansi editors and Q host Shad has been to my mum's house for Christmas dinner. These relationships, and others like them, have not prevented my books from being reviewed negatively – or insipidly – in the press, though some might argue that "connections" helped get them reviewed in the first place.

Despite the invariable inside trading, within literary criticism there is an attempt to preserve some transparency and fairness. At the time of assignment, The Globe and Mail asks reviewers to declare "any previous experience of the book's author, and – it should go without saying – any bias for or against," claiming that "it is important for the reader – and the editors – to know a reviewer's disposition toward a book or author."

Book prizes and grants have even more strident policies. The Canada Council for the Arts requires jurors to declare professional and personal affiliations when assessing applications, dismissing them from the room when a potential for prejudice occurs, and judges for the Griffin Prize "may not be on salary at a publishing house that issues contemporary poetry." I was recently expelled from a Governor-General's Literary Awards jury for having, as per their conflict of interest criteria, "contributed to the development of" and "written a promotional text or review of one of the books." If said book had an acknowledgments section I likely would have scored a hat-trick of waywardness, lest "the assessor's name [be] listed in such a way that it implies a contribution to one of the books."

The book in question was Giving Up, a first novel by my good friend Mike Steeves. I read Giving Up in manuscript, offering feedback and suggestions, put Mike in touch with his eventual publisher, BookThug, and contributed a few words of support for the back cover. Also providing blurbs were Miriam Toews and Carl Wilson, who, were they vetted, would likewise be disqualified from the GG jury for their kindness. (As would anyone who worked in any capacity with a writer publishing a book this year.)

Here's the thing: I love Mike's book. I love Mike too, but he'd written and shared with me two previous manuscripts that I did not love as much as I love Giving Up. Told in a tripartite, he said/she said/they said format, the story details one evening in the life of a youngish couple, a few scant hours in which the book "makes nothing happen" in the most remarkable, Yeatsian, Seinfeldian, Steevesian way. Since we're friends, in the book's wryly neurotic language I hear echoes of Mike's favourite writers – Thomas Bernhard and Javier Marias being the most prominent – but also, mainly, Mike himself:

"When I am witness to someone's humiliation it is as though I have been humiliated, just like when a child gets embarrassed during a sex scene from a movie or television show, even if they're alone, because they assume that when their excitement and confusion is this intense everyone must know. I assumed that when one person's shameful behaviour is exposed, that the sheer intensity of their humiliation was capable of exposing all of my faults and secrets as well, a sort of shame by association."

I admire writers who are able to translate an essential facet of themselves to the page. A voice, a perspective, an experience, a way of existing in the world – all of my favourite authors so penetratingly expose something private and poignant that the resulting personal truths feel universal. I wonder, then, if my attachment to Mike's book is too individualized – that is, in reading it I recognize my friend at his most manic, ironic and self-reflexive, and feel affection not just for the characters, but for the author himself.

While that suggests a compromised position in evaluating Giving Up for the allegedly nonpartisan pages of a book review, my feeling is this: it is unlikely that the novel would otherwise earn a mention in this newspaper – maybe, at best, in Jade Colbert's small press roundups. Mike lives in Montreal and doesn't run in publishing circles; he has no agent or "network," and BookThug, a modest outfit run by Jay and Hazel Millar out of their home, has seen only two of its last fifteen fiction titles earn write-ups in these pages. So here we are. And here's why, our friendship aside, I think Mike's book deserves your attention.

The novel opens in the aftermath of an argument, the details of which are never revealed; all we know is that James and Mary are in physical and emotional retreat from each other. James has left the house on a walk, his thoughts spiralling around the central ontological crisis of his life: the work of genius on which he toils – or pretends to toil – day in and day out, in the basement. "Maybe I should give up," he tells himself. "Maybe it's insane to keep going when everything I've done up to this point clearly indicates that there's no greatness in store for me." And yet, James counters, "If I gave up now then I would be admitting that my entire life had been a waste."

This tension between ambition and failure, or expectation and disappointment, is central to Mary's section, too. While James wanders the streets, she laments on their inability, despite plenty of trying, to have a child: "What made everything worse – what made the whole routine so demoralizing and depressing – was that […] we both suspected that there was something permanently wrong that no amount of sex would be able to cure." Like James, who obsesses over "those extraordinary men and women who toiled away in obscurity" before finally achieving success and vindication, Mary tortures herself with the manufactured ideals of her friends' Facebook pages: "They must realize, I think, as I scroll through reams of snapshots, how painful it is for someone like me to see them enjoying a life I'll never know."

One of the book's most compelling features is its exploration of these, as well as less masochistic, contradictions of modern living. The dynamics of James and Mary's relationship are rendered with particular insight: "When we are being kind to each other, when we are being patient, sweet, and understanding, it feels as though this is the way it always is, as if this is the only reality that exists," Mary thinks to herself – and then promptly equivocates: "When we do get in a fight, however […] it's as if all that tenderness and patience is an act, that the only thing we ever really do is fight, and that even when we're not fighting, all we're doing is biding our time until the next confrontation." Here, too, the novel captures one of the essential anxieties of our time: that of existing in a state of dualism that fractures selfhood and throws "reality" into constant flux.

The novel's major theme is faith, from the interpersonal trust required in romantic relationships to the surrogate systems and signifiers to which we assign meaning in a secular age. Success, so essential to social- and self-affirmation, has turned quantifiable: one sets goals; one achieves goals; one sets loftier goals; repeat. What Giving Up explores, quite brilliantly, is the metric of measuring personal worth by material gain. But although the novel asks these hard questions, it never feels pedantic, softened as its arguments are with dry humour. "[Mary] is like a TV detective," thinks James, in a typical flight of fancy, "not the new kind that wallow in blood and semen and stare into the abyss of human perversity with the hard gaze of the chosen few […] but more like the older ones, who sometimes seemed to know everything but at other times were just as confused as everyone else."

In the novel's final section, James and Mary reunite in their apartment, both having endured existential crises as well as more dramatic, outward ones. The narration, previously elliptical and tangential, begins to march with greater precision through the shared terrain of their relationship; the results are unflinching, exploring all the doubt, shame, cruelty and judgment that arise when love is tested and turns most delicate. Yet there is light amid the darkness, too, and the story reaches a climax that feels both surprising and perfect. It is, I think, one of the most satisfying – yet oddly ambiguous – endings I've read in a first novel in a very long time.

There's a Sanskrit word, mudita, which denotes that particular, sympathetic joy experienced at someone else's accomplishment; it's essentially the opposite of envy, and it perfectly captures how I feel about Giving Up. Obviously, this is not a traditional review – that is, an impartial consumer report advising you whether to buy the novel or not – since much of my attachment to the book is born from pride and personal fondness. Even so, I truly believe that Mike Steeves has written a wonderful work of fiction that explores modern coupledom in profound, moving and hilarious ways. If you don't believe me, Miriam Toews thinks so too, having declared its author a "brilliant, singular voice in CanLit." And she doesn't know Mike at all, and she's from Manitoba.

Pasha Malla is a columnist for Globe Books.