Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Reader's Diary #134- Tina Chaulk: This Much Is True (up to "Baptism By Fire")

For a Social Psychology final exam, my classmates and I had to watch When Harry Met Sally and discuss how authentic the relationship was between Harry (Billy Crystal) and Sally (Meg Ryan). Sounds like a slightly fluffy exam, but I really enjoyed it and I think it made us think critically about the topics we had learned.

If I were to teach a Newfoundland Sociology course, I'd use This Much Is True as the final exam. The bulk of the course would revolve around Leslie Bella's Newfoundlanders At Home and Away and the final would have students discuss how Lisa Simms fits with Bella's research. They'd be excellent companion books.

That's one of the good things about the book. There are plenty more. But there's also a few problems I have with it. Which would you like first, the good news or the bad news? I thought so...

My major complaint is also one I feel the most sheepish about saying: I don't like the humour in it. The reason for my timidness to stand behind that insult is that I know humour is such a personal thing. My taste in comedy might be quite different than Chaulk's and the majority of her readers. (At least one commenter on her blog said her husband found it quite funny). To me, the humour felt forced, occasionally juvenile and well, not funny. Skimming through the book, I can find any number of examples, but this one is quite representative of the "laughs" you'll find in the book: When doing their hair for a night on the town, Simms describes her and her friends as looking like "Frankenstein's brides on a bad hair day." Who doesn't compare bad hair to the bride of Frankenstein? I'd like something a little more original in my punchline. I commend Chaulk for trying to infuse a sense of humour into her novel. No one can accuse her of being stuffy. But unlike authors like Mordecai Richler or Miriam Toews, Chaulk's humour isn't all that witty. I guess Scott Thompson should be careful what he asks for.

Occasionally, I also find some of the events a little too pretend. The best example of this is the speech/threat that Ron gives to Dreg to stay away from his daughter Rain. It's just too perfect. Ron doesn't miss a beat when he goes into vivid detail about a scar he got from a gutting knife. It's a little too bad-TV perfect. With so much emotion, I'd expect some stammering, some tripping over of one's words perhaps, and so forth. I'm not saying I think Ron shouldn't have come out on top, but some fall or imperfection would have added so much to the authenticity. To make it worse, the speech was so effective that Dreg left the province, never to be heard from again.

And now the good. I hate to rely on a cliche, but it is a page turner.

One of the most compelling parts so far involved an old friend, and new roommate of Lisa's, Karen- now known as Rain. Karen has changed from a popularity queen into a goth princess. What's great about her character is the mystery of her new found bitterness and her abusive relationship. I can think of two other books in which the most dramatic story line revolves around peripheral characters instead of the central character; John Bemrose's The Island Walkers and Carol Shield's Unless. It must be a somewhat difficult decision for a writer to make; who to focus on. Like Shields, Chaulk made the right choice. It would have been obvious to set the story around Rain, but there's something more interesting about seeing it from a friend's perspective.

Simms is Chaulk's greatest achievement in this story. I like how it feels like a "coming of age" story but it is set in her 20s instead of adolescence. To me, and I'm sure many others, this is far more accurate of when we "found ourselves".

Finally, I like how it is set in the 80s. Sometimes the references seem a little forced, but at least it's something that adds just a little more appeal.


John Mutford said...

Personally, I think I like comedy that doesn't rely on one-liners or punchlines; Something that makes fun of the ridiculuous in everyday life. Chaulk started to do that in the hair prepping scene described above- but blew it with the jokes.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

The humour example you used WAS pretty lame. If you are going to use a cliche as a joke, at least make it a funny cliche!
The author really should have had you edit this book, that's all I'm saying...

John Mutford said...

Yeah the book is chocked full of cliches. On the one hand, it adds to the book's conversational style. Hey, people do actually use cliches in real life. It makes Simms seem a little more real. But she goes a little overboard (see how hypocritical I can be?).

As for me being an editor, I'm guessing I'm burning more bridges (look, another cliche! It's infectious!) than I'm building.