A Loss of Innocence

Our Response to CorruptionFrom time to time, I worry for my soul. I worry about the corruption that seems to come with time, the loss of innocence that comes with experience, and it seems that finishing The Picture of Dorian Gray has caused me to think about this more and more. I feel like I lost much of my innocence that came with ignorance – though I still have so much to learn – and, despite occasionally yearning for simpler times, I’m fine with a shedding of the naivety of my youth. The innocence I hope to always maintain is the innocence that accompanies my morality.

I think that the biggest reason time is corrupting is that we all inevitably make mistakes and have regrets. Owning up to our mistakes and doing whatever possible to make amends when slighting another is not only hugely therapeutic, but it also seems to effectively shield the soul against degeneracy. Our mistakes only seem to eat away at the sanctity of the soul when we stop caring.

As I age, I unfortunately have to work harder and harder to care. As responsibilities build up and have the regrettable effect of teaming up with the responsibilities of others to effectively place a wedge between you and them, you grow apart from the people you care about. So, my daily struggle involves doing what I have to, fitting in what I want to, and trying to care about others simultaneously. Even knowing the restorative power of caring on the soul, selfishness is just such an easy solution to short-term happiness and longer-term achievement. (This is why I can understand how one can get behind the philosophies of Libertarianism and Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, but I can also understand how these ideals will fail at improving our horrible world, if the majority of people are encouraged to act with selfishness, rather than selflessness.)

I specifically worry about the effects of my career and my art on my morals. With regards to pharmacy, I not only have to keep reminding myself that the first and most important focus of my work needs to be patients and their health, rather than the health of the business, but, ultimately, being a business, I can’t ignore that side of things. I also realize that working hard to further my career has caused me to be less receptive to the needs of my friends and family, not to mention hurting my commitments to them, and I have to work on it. I will work on it. (As Monty Burns once concisely said on an older episode of The Simpsons, “Family, religion, friendship. These are the three demons you must slay if you wish to succeed in business.”)

With regards to my art, it’s probably less about my writing hurting my morals, but more that my morals may hurt my writing. Sometime during the initial promotions for Lucifer, I realized that I was doing things just for the sake of getting people’s attention, and I saw that my planning for future writing spent too much thought on the marketing of future manuscripts. Much like with pharmacy, I do accept that the business side of things is a necessary component in my art, but I would much rather write with passion and actually have something thoughtful to say. I need to be writing for me and for my art, not for sales; this plan, in something of an ironic twist, probably won’t hurt sales.

So, while I don’t think any of these worries I carry with me are imaginary, I do strongly believe that just acknowledging the problem and talking about it is helpful. Ignoring it gives it a chance to grow out of my control.

The Picture of Dorian Gray

by Oscar Wilde

The Picture of Dorian Gray CoverI don’t know if it says something of my nature that I seem to enjoy such wicked men in classic literature, so long as they possess a sharp, eloquent wit. This has been true in the past with Vladimir Nabokov’s Humbert and Hermann of Lolita and Despair fame, respectively, and it is certainly true with Lord Henry in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Though, in Lord Henry’s case, perhaps “wicked” is too strong a word; “careless” would be more apt a description for the way Lord Henry exerts his influence over the titular character, turning an innocent young man to a life of sin and misery.

Wilde comments throughout Dorian Gray on then-current Victorian high society, with all its hypocrisy and superficiality. Aesthetics being paramount, Dorian – who is blessed with eternal youthful beauty, his portrait withering and aging instead of himself – repeatedly escapes from scandal with his reputation intact, for how could one with miraculous good looks such as he possibly be so horrid? Surely it would corrupt his fair visage in some way.

Wilde apparently wrote too much of his own life into the story, effectively fanning the flames of his real-life scandals. It’s unfortunate that Dorian Gray struck such a sour note at the time, because, in spite of the occasional tedious escapade, the largest thing that stuck with me as I read was the unmatched beauty of Wilde’s prose. It also startled me to find how thoroughly surprising the book was, with the sole exception being, unfortunately, the ending. Nonetheless, I can easily extend a recommendation to anyone who can get behind flowery descriptions of both miraculous beauty and intense corruption and, of course, numerous Wildean witticisms at every turn.

Thunder Bay, can we talk?

Tamara Johnson Chronicle Journal AdYou may recall a controversial full-page ad taken out in the Chronicle Journal before the Ontario general election of 2014, but, in case you haven’t, I posted it here. (Click on it if you want to see a larger version.) Representatives from Anishinabek Nation were outraged and Mayor Keith Hobbs was disgusted upon seeing it, as they well should have been. Despite Tamara Johnson’s claims being a blatant display of ignorant bigotry – as anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of treaties and the Indian Act should be able to tell you – Johnson received close to 1,000 votes in the election. This, of course, was nowhere near the 15,500 votes Michael Gravelle, the winner, received, but it came across to me as most alarming. Speeding forward to October for Thunder Bay’s municipal election, Johnson ran for Counsellor at Large, once again not succeeding, but only narrowly, with 10,000 votes this time. Throughout the campaigns and beyond, Johnson continually spouted insensitive platitudes toward such a sensitive topic as racial tensions in our fair city. (At the time of writing, I can’t see anything on Tamara’s Facebook timeline where many such statements have been made, as I am not one of her “friends.” However, the most recent I recall involved a suggestion that there are signs written in Ojibway in our courthouse, accounting for the language barrier of the disproportionate number of aboriginal criminals. As an edit, immediately before posting, Johnson publicly posted a letter she sent to the Chronicle Journal, more or less reiterating her position with regard to the ad in question.) And yet, if I ever call Johnson a racist, I seem to run afoul of a supporter who immediately lets me know I’m wrong.

I don’t think the main issue that someone like Tamara Johnson exists in the city; the bigger issue at hand is that there is a large enough base of people who agree with her, and such pernicious ideals are growing and spreading. A major driver of such hatred appears to be fear. It’s no secret that Thunder Bay’s murder rate this year has been unprecedentedly large, given its population, and that most, if not all, of the perpetrators have been aboriginal. (Keith Hobbs brought up the issue back when we were at a “mere” five murders; the grand chief of Nishnawbe Aski Nation later responded to the mayor’s remarks.) And, despite being crude in her delivery, Johnson’s comments regarding disproportionate incarceration rates of aboriginals do have truth to them. So how do we interpret these statistics? Clearly, there’s a substantial group of people who see the aboriginal community as inherently abhorrent, its members wasting away their “gravy train” on drugs and alcohol while murdering each other, but thinking this way is not the least bit helpful in dealing with this issue, and neither is lashing out against aboriginals. (I can’t even begin to imagine how I would feel to have garbage thrown on me as I wait for the bus, let alone if I were abducted and sexually assaulted.) Keep in mind that the rate of high school dropouts and suicide is also much higher for aboriginals than non-aboriginals, and, with reports of behaviour such as those hate crimes, can anyone really say they are completely surprised? (Though, I do remember seeing Ojibway signs at Lakehead University; employing Tamara Johnson logic, post-secondary funding to aboriginals may be paying off.) If you ask me, the people who have to persevere despite great discrimination, social disadvantage, substance abuse, and violence aren’t the ones who come across as entitled in this equation.

A brief mention should be given to the alleged death and rape threats directed at Tamara Johnson following her racist campaigns. I really must stress that such displays are absolutely despicable, completely unacceptable, and not the least bit helpful, no matter what was said. (I should add that I only use the word “alleged” because I was unable to locate any such threats in my internet search, though I fully believe Johnson when she said she received them following her ad campaign.)

Getting back to the matter at hand, I do recall a time when I would have suggested that I would do incredible things with opportunities that aboriginals are afforded, such as having a paid post-secondary education. (Though, I should add that not all aboriginals are afforded such a privilege, in this instance.) While this may be true, there are two problems with this idea. Firstly, being a white male, I’m already given many opportunities that aboriginals are not entitled to, or at least have to work substantially harder to reach than I do, given the wide-spread racism in our community. Secondly, and more importantly, aboriginal rights have nothing to do with my perceived entitlement; they are in place so that we can live in their lands “peacefully.” Addressing a number of Johnson’s “informed” claims: No aboriginal is above the law, as the incarceration rate clearly shows. Blocking roads and railway lines was a way of protesting, not part of aboriginal “entitlement,” and could have been met with arrests as many forms of protest can be. (In fact, with respect to such Idle No More blockades, many protestors dispersed after being delivered court injunctions.) Aboriginals do not “own” Crown lands, as Johnson seems to imply, but they are allowed to perform traditional activities upon them, such as hunting and fishing. Otherwise, land claim disputes develop for various reasons, such as unfulfilled treaty rights, which are constitutionally protected.

Ultimately, this is something we all have to discuss in our community. However, I urge everyone to exercise the utmost civility when approaching such a sensitive topic, and please, please educate yourself before jumping into the talks.

On The Road

by Jack Kerouac

On the Road CoverHearing, in passing, of a relationship between Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, I made the foolish assumption that On the Road would remind me of Naked Lunch. So it should come as no surprise that I was startled to see that Kerouac’s novel is nothing of the sort, with a wide-eyed, innocent young man in our narrator, Sal, travelling across the country, searching for purpose and happiness. Sal starts off seeing the good in everyone and everything, but gradually changes as his vast journey is well underway, from the happy-go-lucky, naive man he once was to one who is jaded and much more melancholic. That being said, I think we can all agree that the more profound and interesting changes surround Sal’s friend and travel companion, Dean.

Dean, though unscrupulous in his pursuits, has an extreme lust for life, partying all night long, courting – and, falling madly in and out of love with – multiple women, and generally, recklessly, living it large. This exuberance is what attracts Sal to Dean, but he can’t keep up; Dean just keeps going and going in his search for IT, as he describes it, until he burns out. And, when he does crash, the true meaning of friendship with Dean comes out, with his exploitation of his friends and acquaintances causing the eventual alienation of most of them. It comes down to Sal to be Dean’s sole defender, despite numerous times being on the receiving end of Dean’s dirty side. (It was in such a situation, with Sal left abandoned, penniless and lost in a strange town, where the Burroughs came out in Kerouac’s prose for probably the only time in the novel.) Ultimately, Dean is the source of much of On the Road’s excitement and adversity.

While briefly perusing reviews of On the Road, I see that many, many people absolutely hated the story, which came as a shock to me, Kerouac’s masterpiece being the most spectacular thing I’ve had the pleasure of reading in quite some time. The main criticism seems to surround this notion of Kerouac “typing, but not writing,” which I can only assume has to do with what little actually “happens” in the course of the story, but I can only feel that this completely misses the point. Much like a story such as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, in which the plot is very light, but seems to be received much better on Goodreads – though, On the Road doesn’t have the benefit of drug-induced excess, to the same extent – it’s more about the journey and the author’s insights, in this case into truth, friendship, loss, and sorrow. I guess it’s hard to explain, but I suppose I’m just lucky enough to get IT.

Dolphin Dreams

by Lyle Nicholson

Dolphin Dreams CoverWhen I first read Dolphin Dreams, I didn’t get it. If you take everything at face-value, things are a tad predictable and underdeveloped, alongside editorial missteps that could easily be a deal breaker in the hands of an unskilled author, but, once you dig below the surface, the story appears to be about so much more. (In order to explain myself a bit, which will be a necessity, given the nature of other reviews I’ve seen, I think I should throw up a bit of a **SPOILER WARNING**)

I really think the reason this went unnoticed on my first read-through was that it was pretty straightforward of a plot: A recently divorced man heads to a conference in Cancun, only to find himself having spectacular “dreams” about dolphins and working with locals to free the captive dolphins at the resort. However, there are unexplained inconsistencies that do come up over the course of the tale, and it appears that Nicholson crafted a deep character in Niklas, the protagonist. Most of the novel comes across as Niklas’ waking dream, from a man who feels powerless after the divorce of his wife, turning (I suspect) to drink after arriving at the resort, which brings his previously disguised mental issues to the forefront of his life. He creates a power fantasy, in which he’s the “chosen one” which has the power to commune with the dolphins, and, as such, is the one to free them from their captivity. He gains the approval of locals, who are likely in similar frames of mind, such as a self-proclaimed “patron of Cancun” – the act of naming oneself as such appears to be more delusional behaviour I would attribute to a stereotypical homeless man, a man who is described as having a lot of money, yet somehow can’t use it to buy the dolphins’ freedom – but winds up in the drunk tank. Nonetheless, Niklas’ fantasy continues, culminating with the love of his perfect woman, who cares about him precisely because of his affinity with the dolphins, and I can assume to be a figment of his imagination. We aren’t told what really happens to Niklas, but it doesn’t matter; even if he became homeless and destitute, he emerges the victor in his mind.

Nicholson’s biography on the back of Dolphin Dreams modestly declares that he is a storyteller, rather than a literary writer, and he would never claim to be such a writer; given his tremendous skill that comes with crafting a complex tale of this calibre, I can’t wait to read Polar Bear Dawn, in the hopes that another deep plot emerges, this time with more experience and editorial prowess.

Trainspotting

by Irving Welsh

Trainspotting coverTrainspotting is something of an oddity. Not so much a traditional story per se as a collection of many collected shorts being told from many different viewpoints, each loosely connected through the characters’ uncontrollable vices. Flipping between points-of-view proved to be jarring from the get-go, at least until I got some familiarity with the characters; after that, it was interesting for each unique voice to witness things from different perspectives. Much in the same vein, the prose – written not how words were spelled, but, rather, how they sound in a thick, Scottish accent – was at first difficult to understand. Once you familiarized yourself with the slang, however, the dialogue truly came alive.

Elicitation of emotions tends to be something that elevates the stories I read, and Trainspotting is very capable of doing such a thing. Hilarious and chilling, raunchy and heartfelt, as much as I enjoyed specific moments in time, it very much felt like a jumbled mishmash throughout. Don’t get me wrong, Welsh has some astute insights into humanity throughout, but shallow passages that come across as shocking for the sake of shocking readers take away from the novel. I can’t help but feeling that a stronger focus could have turned Trainspotting into one of my favourites.

All this being said, I still enjoyed Trainspotting a great deal and extend a recommendation to anyone who can soldier past the dialogue that can be hard to understand. However, don’t be surprised if it can at times feel like a tangled, hollow, mess, much like most of the characters.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

by Mark Haddon

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time CoverWhen I first read the title The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, it immediately struck me as completely pretentious, or at least hugely pompous, and, surprisingly, the story itself proves to be neither. The plot is fairly simple and straightforward, but the main gimmick is that very adult situations and emotions are explored through childish eyes.

The narration is probably the book’s biggest strength and largest failing. The story is told by Christopher, an autistic teen – or, at least a teen suffering from a disorder in the autism spectrum – who is writing a book exploring the events surrounding the death of a dog. I need to hand it to Haddon, as Christopher possesses a very authentic voice. However, the lengths the author goes through to employ a sense of realism, such as spending entire chapters explaining the Monty Hall Problem or the plot and all the moments of note in The Hound of the Baskervilles, hurt the novel’s readability, in that they are tedious necessities. Had the author chosen to pepper the plot with Christopher’s explanations and quirks, rather than dropping everything and giving us a lecture, I probably would have enjoyed The Curious Incident immensely.

But, once the story got moving – about one-hundred pages in – I did enjoy it, nonetheless. The final chapter made me a bit sick and a bit sad. It’s highly possible that the tiresome parts were needed to elicit such emotions, but that, unfortunately, didn’t make them any less tedious. (And, having to go through one-hundred pages before interesting things occur isn’t typically the measure of a good story.)