When Novices Leave The Safety Off...
Novels by rock stars, usually of the washed-up variety, seem to be dime-a-dozen these days. A list of musicians as weird and varied as Moon Unit Zappa, John Wesley Harding, Neil Peart, Jewel and—arguably most famously—Madonna, have put down their microphones or instruments to pick up a writer’s pen.
The reason rock stars want to write is pretty obvious: If you have (or had) a music career and a sizeable fan base, and you’re now looking for something better to do, chances are that you can easily parlay CD sales into book sales. And chances are excellent that publishers will willingly snap up your debut novel, no matter what state its in, simply by nature of the fact that it practically comes with a built-in guarantee to sell.
So, into this growing fray of books by musicians comes one by Toronto (by way of Halifax) resident and ex-Thrush Hermit guitarist Rob Benvie. His debut novel, Safety of War, not only was published by indie book publisher Coach House Books late last year, but has also gone into its second printing in his native Canada since it was released. This relative success is a bit surprising considering Thrush Hermit was really more of a critical darling by association, than for anything they did. The heavy alterna-rock group was probably best remembered internationally for hailing from the same ‘90s Canadian East Coast music scene as Sloan and Eric’s Trip, for recording an EP with legendary producer Steve Albini, and for contributing a song to the Kevin Smith’s probably long-forgotten Mallrats soundtrack.
Aside from the fact that Canadian small press runs are (understandably) pretty small—probably somewhere around 500 or 1,000 copies in a country where 5,000 copies sold is considered a bestseller—I wish I could say that this book is seemingly selling out because it’s great. I want to write that it beats the pants off of most novels written by debut novelists, or that it comes close to the inspired lunacy of an early Chuck Palahniuk novel.
And I would have, if it only stopped somewhere around page 100.
The disappointing thing about Safety of War is that Benvie squanders a great kernel-like premise by stretching out his idea to 300-plus pages. And that is that life built around the office and consumerism becomes boring and pointless after a while, so people are more or less inclined to riot or go to war just to find some measure of importance or comfort in their meaningless lives.
In this novel’s case, the story is centered on a young office drone named David, whose boredom at his copywriting job inspires a rather strange infatuation with George C. Scott’s Oscar-winning portrayal of World War II general George S. Patton in the 1970 film bearing his surname. Naturally, this infatuation slowly begins to fracture David’s perceptions of reality as the pages start mounting and the weird starts going pro. As strange or eerily derivative that might sound—overtones of Fight Club, anyone?—Benvie takes some rather witty shots at corporate life early on. A scene in which David observes his workers quietly obsessing during a power outage about their inability to work, in particular, is a well-crafted gem.
However, the novel becomes gradually disjointed and unfocused as it goes on. Instead of being, say, a metaphorical social commentary on why is it that thousands of young Americans are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice in a Middle Eastern war that is neither winnable nor ethical, it instead veers into straight-up horror right out of Stephen King with overly pretentious Biblical parallels.
In fact, David is soon pitted against a monstrous Goliath that he unleashes (and must destroy) while spending time resting at a neo-hippie commune called the Chaos Farm. Is the monster his dead father? Is it his dead cousin, with whom he was courting a pseudo-incestuous affair? Or is it just another manifestation of George C. Scott playing Patton?
If you really care to know the answer, you’re going to have to overcome Benvie’s penchant for overcooked clipped sentences and general art-school wankery of the sort that’d make a young Peter Gabriel proud. Man, I cannot begin to bitch enough about impenetrable prose of the sort you’d normally find on the lyric sheet to The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway:
If only. So many. But what if. Lisa. But the eye. Eye fucking eye. She smiles. If only I and the eye and the smile. And the prose. I vomit at the thick paragraphs of overtly creek-of-consciousness prose.
OK, so I made those last two sentences up. But the point is pretty simple: Rob Benvie needs to learn to tell a story like he writes a good rock song. All he needs in his writing is a little verse-chorus-verse without the flashy clipped guitar solos squawking into the mix. In fact, there’s a great novella hiding in all the debris of Safety of War, and I really hope Benvie keeps writing; unlike other rockers-turned-writers, a smidge of talent shines through even the dullest bits of the book.
But if Benvie wants to succeed in the writer’s arena, he has to learn how to keep his story at the forefront while keeping his indulgences on a leash. Or, perhaps paraphrasing a few words of advice from the title of a Pink Floyd’s craziest psych-rock freak-out might be more apropos:
Careful with that axe, Rob. Careful with that axe.