[26 May 2011]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Toronto writer Hal Niedzviecki is probably best known, at least stateside, for being a witty and observant author of pop culture obsessed non-fiction books. His last title in this area, The Peep Diaries: How We’re Learning to Love Watching Ourselves and Our Neighbors, was published by the indie San Francisco-based City Lights Books, home to founder and poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti – marking Niedzviecki’s first foray into the American market. His readership potentially expanded when Oprah Winfrey’s O Magazine chose The Peep Diaries as one of “25 Books You Can’t Put Down” not long after the tome was published in 2009.
What American readers (as well as others outside of Canada) tuned into his pop culture commentary may not know, though, is that Niedzviecki is also an accomplished fiction writer in his home land, having published a short story collection and a few novels with both small and large presses. Well, non-Canadian readers can finally get their first look at Niedzviecki as a fiction writer as City Lights has recently published Niedzviecki’s second collection of short stories entitled Look Down, This is Where it Must Have Happened. And, just like with his Canadian fiction titles, it has its share of quirks.
Being a Canadian who has written for the independent culture magazine that Niedzviecki founded in Toronto in the mid-‘90s, Broken Pencil, I pretty much hang onto anything that comes from the author’s pen. However, I truly do feel that Niedzviecki is at his sharpest when he’s focused on journalistic works about the nature of the individual immersed in today’s pop culture saturated world. I’ve read some of his novels – I think his best is 1999’s Lurvy, A Farmer’s Almanac, which is a retelling of E. B. White’s children’s classic Charlotte’s Web from the perspective of a dim farmhand – and they all suffer from the same tendency to break down into a narrative mess by the close of the book. This is deliberate, for I interviewed NIedzviecki for a long defunct Canadian webzine called papmag in 2001, and this is what he had to say about the novel he was promoting at the time, Ditch:
[M]y interest [is] in breaking down and degrading narrative. I think you have to – and I’ve always believed this – you do have to draw people into something. You have to tell a story and make them care about that story. And yet you don’t have to provide a generic blueprint narrative in the process. You don’t have to bore them or give them the moral epiphany that is more often than not common in our novels. You know, the fancy metaphors and the delicate poetry and the touching moral epiphany at the end.
That desire to not deliver a “moral epiphany” is a bit of an undoing for Niedzviecki as an author of fiction. It’s evident even from this latest collection that he had a lot of interesting ideas, and is trying to do somersaults with his prose at time in the best post-modern sense. However, a great deal of the stories in Look Down, This is Where it Must Have Happened suffer from lacking concrete endings with any sort of resolution or closure. And those happen to be the best stories, ironically enough.
The other stuff is essential po-mo filler that is not really engaging and is often hard to parse, and I consider myself to be a pretty intelligent reader. Ultimately, Look Down is a bit of a mixed bag. There’s great stuff to be found within the covers, but a great deal of it is unrewarding and unsatisfying in Niedzviecki’s quest to break down the tyranny of narrative and story construction.
I want to highlight the good things about the collection, because I respect and admire Niedzviecki as a pop culture critic, and it’s usually the stories that skewer elements of mass entertainment or the world at large that we live in that work best. The collection opens with “Special Topic: Terrorism”, which is about a group of university students taking an academic class on terrorism who decide to actively engage in criminal behaviour to protest the ownership of gas-guzzling SUVs, much to the chagrin to their professor. However, these students post their activities to photo-sharing sites and the whole thing happens to go viral – thus reflecting back on some of the author’s views on the nature of celebrity in the information age as mined in The Peep Diaries.
One of the students, though, starts to get paranoid about the whole viral aspect of their terror campaign, and the story spirals into this student’s attempt to cover his tracks. The story is lively, engaging and relevant – and deftly barely mentions 9/11, the Taliban or al-Qaeda. But then it just ends, as though Niedzviecki had no idea where to go with the piece. There’s no conflict resolution, there’s no grappling with the moral reprehensibility of these students’ actions, there’s nothing. Therefore, “Special Topic: Terrorism” feels like it’s all sizzle and no steak, as the meatiness of the morality of one’s actions and subsequent consequences are barely plumbed.
A similar fate befalls “Prenatal”, which has a crackling great premise: a pregnant high-school girl discovers that her unborn fetus can talk to her, and actually tries to convince her that having an abortion would be the best option for both of them! “Prenatal” is a great yarn because the fetus actually peppers its arguments with real-world statistics on what negative impacts in society that may befall a young mother, showing that Niedzviecki has clearly done a great deal of homework on the subject.
However, the story just hits a metaphorical brick wall. Does the narrator decide to get an abortion? Does she carry the baby to term? You won’t know, because Niedzviecki isn’t interested in the consequences of the weight of responsibilities bearing down on his young protagonist. In many ways, the ending is a cop-out. We don’t know what happens to the characters that populate its story, which gives the reader a feeling of being let onto a Ferris wheel of emotion, only to be stuck at the very top, dangling with no way down or off.
Similarly, “Doing God’s Work”, which ends the book of 12 short stories, is, at first blush, a delightful Jonathan Carroll-esque rendering of a guy who happens to be God’s own personal assistant, and, when he’s had enough of being bossed around by the All Mighty, decides to kill him. However, the problem with endings rears its head again, as the reader is left in the dark as to whether or not the narrator goes through with his plan. There is, granted, an implication, but there’s nothing definite or concrete. Thus, this is an ongoing occurrence throughout Look Down that is never fully cashed out: the ability to write an ending that provides any sense of finality to these tales.
Granted, there is some outright dross that is scattered around Look Down. The titular “Look Down, This is Where it Must Have Happened” didn’t make an iota of sense to me, and I can’t even tell you what it’s about. The follow-up story, “Punk Rock Role Model” doesn’t have any characters that you can get invested in, and simply feels like a piece of ratty clothing on a clothesline being hung out to dry. “The Colorist” has the feel of a José Saramago tale, and is essentially a story about a young shyster who tries to take over the job of a dying man, but it just feels a bit too long and winded to make any sort of impact.
All in all, Look Down, This is Where it Must Have Happened is probably best suited to the student of post-modern literature and academics, for there is a great deal of experimentation with story structure that is on display here. However, that experimentation feels like an abstraction for the sake of an abstraction, which is really frustrating because Niedzviecki does have some Cracker Jack concepts to mine and explore.
If you overlook the failure of narrative endings here, Look Down shows a sense of maturity in Niedzviecki’s writing as his past work tended to be risqué for the sake of being so. That’s not to say that there isn’t a sense of the ribald in Look Down – one story deals with one man’s infatuation with online porn that devolves into acting out his sexual fantasies – but there is growth and wisdom here that didn’t permeate his earlier works.
However, this collection illustrates that Niedzviecki is still grappling with form, identity and style, and that by eschewing narrative conventions, he risks letting a good story from unfolding. Look Down just basically proves that Niedzviecki has a ways to go as a fiction writer, but that won’t stop this reader from awaiting the next book that he has to unleash upon the world. Particularly if it deals with his strong suit: conveying the hard truths of our media savvy world ... ideally through the form of non-fiction, journalistic writing.