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Weekend reads: Art for art's sake
Toronto author Jason Guriel kicks off our summer fiction series - with the books that inspired his latest flight of fancy, a science fiction werewolf whaling novel written in rhyming couplets
The last days of summer are upon us, and hopefully everyone will get at least a little bit of time to unplug. At Lean Out this season, we’ve confronted some dark and difficult subjects, from the collapse of the Canadian media to corporate power, low birth rates, the prevalence of bad, low-wage jobs, and rampant politicization.
So, for the next few weekend columns, we’re going to set current affairs aside and revel in art for art’s sake.
This series is inspired by the Toronto writer Jason Guriel, whose book On Browsing is one of my favourites from the past year. When I saw that he had a new novel out, written in rhyming couplets — and billed as “a mashup of Moby-Dick, The Lord of the Rings, Byron, cyberpunk, Swamp Thing, Teen Wolf … and more” — I was naturally intrigued.
“Without question this is the most imaginative piece of young-adult-adjacent fiction I have ever read,” notes a review, this week in The Wall Street Journal. And indeed, The Full-Moon Whaling Chronicles is a deeply original outing. Gorgeously-written, it is a testament to beauty and wonder.
The book’s origin story dates back to Jason’s previous book, Forgotten Work. “Late in the novel we meet a 13 year-old named Cat,” he tells me. “As we’re learning about her world, there’s a passing reference to a YA novel called The Full-Moon Whaling Chronicles, about teenage werewolves who live in this whaling village. I barely remember coming up with that. It was almost like a throwaway moment. I guess I needed something that sounded sufficiently preposterous.”
“At the very start of the pandemic, when I wrapping up that earlier novel and starting to think about another one, I had gas in the tank,” he continues. “We were also entering lockdown and I had nothing else to do. So, I was like, ‘Maybe I should keep going.’ I had this perverse thought: ‘What if I took that imaginary book that Cat is into and tried to write it?’ It was almost like a lark. And then at a certain point I thought, ‘I’ll write the novel, but actually what would be cool is to bring Cat’s world back into this, and really make it about fandom and her obsessive pursuit of this author.’”
Here, during a recent chat about The Full-Moon Whaling Chronicles, Jason shares some of the titles that inspired him during the writing process.
I have been reading William Gibson since I was a teenager — so, for well over 25 years. His books have always meant a lot to me. I think when I was younger, I liked the more fantastical elements. But of course Pattern Recognition, he produced almost through a self-imposed dare. If I recall correctly, he challenged himself to write a novel that would feel like a science fiction novel, but set in the present. It’s set in post-911 America, and it’s about this young woman who’s searching for the artist behind a series of viral video clips on the Internet. His novels often feature people searching for some artifact, even as far back as Count Zero.
I’ve always been a critic at heart, and my books are always about books, in a sense. And I’ve always enjoyed that strain in William Gibson — that his characters are always, beyond the science fiction elements, pursuing works of art and reclusive artists. So, that had an influence on the subject matter of this novel.
But the other thing I love about William Gibson is that he’s so hyper-attuned to the texture of the worlds he writes about. Probably more than any fantastical element, that has always been a big influence on my writing, and especially on these verse novels. He has an ability to really make you feel the physics of his worlds. There’s a wonderful image of a car that’s invisible, in one of his more futuristic novels. There’s a single leaf that looks like it’s floating in air, but it’s just that the leaf is sitting on this invisible car. It’s that hyper-attention to the texture of the world that has been influential in my own writing.
I started writing this crazy book about teenage werewolves and whaling — and trying to mash those two strange things together — and as soon as you start writing about whaling, you are immediately in the shadow of Moby-Dick. There’s no way to avoid it. Certainly, I wasn’t setting out to write any kind of great American novel, but as soon as the whaling piece comes in, Melville is there.
I remember stumbling on a quote, early in Moby-Dick, which describes a wolfish world. I was just like, “Oh my God, how do I not use that as an epigraph for a novel about whaling and werewolves?” So I had a lot of fun pulling in bits of that. There is a giant sea creature in my novel that’s called a Moby. That’s the name of the species.
The other thing I want to say about Melville is that he’s such an incredible, over-the-top prose stylist. I read Moby-Dick a lifetime ago, when I was a student. Revisiting it a few years ago, I was blown away by how quirky and fun it is. It’s often presented as homework, or broccoli — like it’s this big book that’s good for you. It is so poorly represented. It’s actually just a bonkers, crazy book. It’s such a kooky book, such a fun book. But the language is so stylish and there’s so much of virtuosity from sentence to sentence. That definitely had an impact on the writing of Full-Moon.
In this new book of mine, there’s a couple of chapters where we slip into fan fiction. I don’t really announce it as such; you just start to realize, “Oh, I’m in a slightly different world.” I thought it would be fun to slip into the world of Swamp Thing. Swamp Thing is a comic book from the 70s and 80s that was a terrible comic book and it was due for cancellation. It was a DC comic. And the great British writer Alan Moore — he is the guy who went on to write Watchmen, which became a big movie — early in his career, they gave him Swamp Thing. Like, “See what you can do with this.”
Alan Moore took this pulpy comic about a swamp monster. There was nothing to lose at that point; it was a doomed piece of genre fluff. But he took this comic and he transformed it into one of the greatest comic books ever written. It’s just an absolutely phenomenal work, and has been highly influential. I’ve always loved the example of writers and artists who are tasked with taking some middling genre material and elevating it. Alan Moore is a great example of that. I think I had that at the back of my mind when I started this novel. I was eyeing that little reference to this weird YA novel that I had made in my previous book. I thought, “That is a preposterous book. Could I elevate that?”
“Pale Fire” is a 999-line poem written by a fictional poet named John Shade. So, again, you can see that I’m always into these fictional writers. [Laughs] What’s interesting is there’s this 999-line poem, and then there’s a huge section of end notes, and the end notes are written by this scholar. You start to realize, as you read the end notes to the poem, that this guy is maybe a little bit crazy. Like he’s absconded with the manuscript of this poem.
Within the end notes, a novel unfolds, basically. So the poem is just this little thing at the start of the book. But I have always loved the poem, because the poem is written in the same form that I use. It’s written in rhyming couplets, and it’s a narrative poem. It tells a story. It’s wonderful.
And talk about a self-imposed challenge! Nabokov was like, “I need a poem that sounds like a real poem, so I can write this crazy novel.” And so he wrote this masterful poem. That’s always blown me away.
But also just the example of someone writing something that was really entertaining, narrative-driven, fun. A linear story, but in a fixed form, with a rhyme scheme. I’ve always thought that was cool. I’ve always loved that. I’ve always thought, “Why don’t more poets try to tell a big story — and use the resources of poetry?” Not free verse; that’s too easy. But actually try to do your 300-page book in rhyming couplets. Why don’t more people try to do that? So I had that, also, looming over the last six years of my life. [Laughs]
If you want to hear more from Jason Guriel, he’ll be at the Vancouver Writers Fest in October.
In Lean Out community updates this week, podcast guest Michael Lind has published the definitive essay on a disturbing phenomenon on the right that he’s called “the Eugenicons,” for Compact Magazine. And speaking of Compact, founder and editor Sohrab Ahmari returned to the pod this week, to talk about his new book, Tyranny, Inc. You can read an excerpt from it here, at American Compass.
Lean Out guest Peter Menzies has a piece at The Line (the outlet co-edited by Lean Out guest Jen Gerson) about the Canadian Association of Broadcasters, the CBC and News Media Canada’s complaint with the Competition Bureau. And Lean Out guest Marc Edge has also weighed in, over at Canadian Dimension.
Plus, Lean Out guest Kevin Bardosh recently testified on the impact of vaccine mandates at the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Accountability, for the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic. And here is Bardosh this weekend, writing in UnHerd, on the impact of pandemic policy on children, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. “The UK Covid inquiry and other formal evaluations need to face the facts: we failed children in our response to Covid,” he argues. “Let’s be grown-ups and not fail them again in evaluating our mistakes.”
Stay tuned, next week both our summer media series and our summer fiction series will continue. See you then!
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