You’ll probably be reading a lot about Emily Pohl-Weary in the years ahead, being that she’s an emerging literary figure who happens to have her fingers stuck in a whole bunch of different pies. Astute followers of the Canadian lit scene will certainly know she already has her street cred sewn up: she was an editor at Toronto’s Broken Pencil magazine, one of the major bibles of underground culture in North America. More recently, she has acted as co-editor of Kiss Machine, which has quickly gone from being a homemade saddle-stitched ‘zine of underground art and culture into a full-fledged, perfect-bound magazine.
However, her work has already been feted in some rather mainstream and prestigious quarters as well—she shared a 2003 Hugo Award for co-writing a memoir tilted Better To Have Loved: The Life of Judith Merril. (Merril, a ‘50s science-fiction writer, was Pohl-Weary’s grandmother. Pohl-Weary completed the autobiography after Merril’s death.) Not content to rest on her laurels after that early taste of success, Pohl-Weary is now seemingly everywhere. Not only has she recently edited a collection of essays and fiction around women and superheroes (Girls Who Bite Back: Witches, Mutants, Slayers and Freaks), readers can soon look forward to a poetry collection, a mystery novel, a non-fiction account of the disposable nature of art, and a four-issue comic book series featuring two girl pirates. That’s not to mention the novel at hand here for review, A Girl Like Sugar.
[Before I go on, I should say that Pohl-Weary’s web of activity even extends as far as my own work: She once published a short story of mine in an early issue of Kiss Machine. Granted, she has turned down quite a number of my other stories and poems since then.]
Pohl-Weary’s debut novel is fascinating in that it shares synergy with the work of a fellow Toronto-based author, Elyse Friedman, whose latest novel, Waking Beauty, was also recently reviewed on this Web site. On the basis of these two books, it’s almost as though a new strain of Chick Lit In Sheep’s Clothing is emerging, where you have stories about young women coming to terms with their identities, but take the road a lot less traveled. In both Friedman’s and Pohle-Weary’s books, you have women protagonists who share the surface desires of the pop-conscious to have a perfect body or become really, really famous, but eventually realize that the world portrayed by glossy magazines isn’t really what it’s cracked up to be. The twist in these books, though, is that the female characters aren’t bound by love or duty to become someone’s doting wife. The heroine of A Girl Like Sugar, in particular, is more likely to make friends with blue dye in their hair or shack up with a political activist.
The heroine in question is a confused, Parker Posey-obsessed twenty-something woman named Sugar Jones—obviously a tweak at Bridget Jones and her world-famous diary. As the book moves on, Sugar gradually forges with leftist-leaning friends and lovers over the course of 300-plus pages following a series of unfortunate events, including one character’s drug overdose and a close brush or two with sexual assault.
Easily one of the best things about this novel is the relationship Sugar has with her dead rock star boyfriend Marco, who visits her frequently as a ghostly apparition. (This supernatural aspect of the book seems like a singular nod to Merril’s science fiction community, even though Pohl-Weary offers up a possible alternate, more ‘scientific’ explanation for these visits later in the book.)
Marco seems to be modeled after Nirvana singer/songwriter Kurt Cobain, and the Cobain-Courtney Love relationship between Sugar and her ghost gives this novel much of its earth-shattering emotional core. The passages involving Marco are alternately haunting, humorous and bittersweet, and suggest that another, though entirely different novel, could have easily been written centered squarely on these two characters.
However, Sugar is just as much about its politics as it is its characters; unfortunately, it’s in its politics where the book falls down somewhat. Pohl-Weary tiptoes a little bit into “tell, don’t show” territory when it comes to exposing the political leanings of some of the men and women populating the book. While she does a fairly admirable job of pulling back from her soapbox before she goes overboard, the novel’s politics in relation to feminism and masculinity is worthy of a little concern.
For instance, Sugar eventually winds up falling in love with a leftist documentary filmmaker named Thomas Kung, a guy who steps into un-peaceful protest demonstrations and has the technological know-how to jam electronic billboards. Considering that just about every other male in this book is painted as being a drug addict, a would-be rapist or an irresponsible boy-man—I’m not denying that these people exist, or that women can’t write about the bad things some men do critically in their fiction—I found this character trait a little wee bit hypocritical, as he is literally one of the few “good guys” populating Sugar’s world. (He is only considered as verging on “bad” when his fidelity to Sugar is questioned at one point.) So what makes him so “good” compared to these other men?
From my male point-of-view, most of the other, not-so-nice men in Sugar’s life seem to be grubby corporate record-store owners or rock stars with a lot of cash or power. Therefore, a subtext emerges in this novel that goes something like this: if you’re a successful man-capitalist and have a great career, you’re probably Bad News Bears insofar as treating a woman right. Now, in some cases, this is probably very, frighteningly true. However, in all due respect to Pohl-Weary, one can’t really make a blanket statement and say that most powerful men are evil and controlling, just as one can’t say that most women are weak and in need of rescuing. The world isn’t quite so black-and-white anymore, if it ever was. In the case of Mr. Kung, it could be argued that he is doing nothing for his woman’s sanity by flirting with the law, even if it is for a good cause.
Despite this concern, I often found myself taking hits from this book like it was pure caffeine or nicotine. I would occasionally look up at the page count and notice that 60 or 80 pages had whizzed by since I’d last checked. What’s more, upon closing this novel, the characters still kind of lingered on with me, not unlike Marco’s ghost. I couldn’t help but wonder whatever became of Sugar and her companions, which is a pretty good indication of how believable and real these characters acted and felt. It may seem bizarre to wish this, but perhaps a sequel called Sugar Jones: The Edge of Insanity won’t be all that far off.
Particularly most impressive about Sugar is that it’s essentially a glossy pulp Chick Lit novel masquerading slightly as something else altogether, a candy kiss hiding barbed wire. While one’s enjoyment of the book might hinge on whether one shares the exact same political and ideological views as the author—much in the same way one would probably read, say, Naomi Klein or Michael Moore—A Girl Like Sugar is a refreshing change from all those books aimed at women that merely fortify the pro-consumerism and pro-beauty myth. It’s also an absolutely delightful and devastating account of one young woman’s rage against the machine. Even if you don’t always agree with the choices Sugar makes or, by extension, conclusions the author draws, this book is as fun as eating a Ferrero Rocher. That this concoction is so filling and yummy in the centre, leaves this reader with a pretty good taste for what’s yet to come from Pohl-Weary’s desk. And there’s going to be a lot, lot more from that desk, I’m sure.