Citation from CNQ editorial staff:
Jared Young’s essay starts off as an almost flippant look at how we define ourselves through the books we read before segue-ing—via the self-defeating male characters in Russell Smith’s stories and novels— into a deeper examination of current notions about masculinity and national identity. Of particular appeal to CNQ editors was the fact that Young does all this with an entertaining but thoughtful combination of humour, intelligence, and astute critical observation.
— 1 —
WHY I AM UNIQUELY UNQUALIFIED TO BE DISCUSSING THIS IN THE FIRST PLACE
Let me say this up front: I cannot speak objectively on the matter of Russell Smith, or his writing style, or his aesthetic mission, or his distinguished place as the Bacchanalian deity of Canadian literature.
Why? Because I share in common with the Troubled Dudes who populate much of Smith’s work a predilection for self-destructive behaviour and an inability to exert control over my egoistic urges and a habit of convincing myself that wrong things are right. So, instead of trying to be objective, I’m just going to explain all my prejudices and biases and ill-feelings, and then describe for you how his most recent collection of short stories, Confidence, dispelled me of them.
Because, yes, the title of this piece is true: after reading Confidence (for a second time) I learned to love it, and, in loving it, have learned to love and admire Russell Smith. But to learn to love a thing, you must start from a point of neutrality. Or even hate. And that, I am ashamed to admit, is where I began.
— 2 —
WHAT I KNEW ABOUT RUSSELL SMITH BEFORE I KNEW ANYTHING ABOUT RUSSELL SMITH
I knew Russell Smith’s reputation* long before I’d read a single word he’d written: that he was an urban satirist from the genetic lineage of Tom Wolfe and Martin Amis; a Canadian cousin to literary Brat-Packers like Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis. He didn’t just write about drugs, he wrote about the joys of using them; he didn’t just write about sex, he wrote about fucking.
[*The back jacket of Confidence remains a pretty good précis. Maclean’s tells you that it’s “a poisonously funny portrait of the so-hip-it-hurts fashion, food, and bar scene.” The Globe and Mail observes that Smith “has an insider’s knowledge of where the targets are.” The Toronto Star praises his “gift for skewering the privileged and pompous.” Even the bio on Smith’s own website calls him “one of Canada’s funniest and nastiest writers.”]
This reputation, I’ll admit, appealed to me a great deal. Like most middle-class heterosexual white males with library cards, I’d gone through my Less Than Zero phase, and had already begun to adopt, in my own writing, all of Amis’ alliterative tics and twitches. Before I’d read a single word Russell Smith had written, he had already become, for me, the cool older kid in high school who smokes in the student parking lot, who’s always holding hands with cute girls in the hallways, who you hope to model yourself after.So, a few years ago, I picked up a copy of his novel Girl Crazy, hoping with stupid teenage hope that I might germinate and bloom and become some better version of myself simply for the passive act of being in Russell Smith’s presence for a while.
It started well. There was a reference to Nabokov in Barbara Gowdy’s blurb, and the back jacket proclaimed that it was “a hot floor show for those of us desperate for the present to finally get its time in the Canadian literary spotlight.” I was one of those desperate people! And so I was ready, before I had read a single word, to love it.
But I struggled with Girl Crazy.
No, “struggle” is too charitable a word. I was devastated. I thought it sucked. I’d invested a lot in that first read, and the disappointment I felt was more than just the usual bummer of having wasted precious evening and weekend hours hate-reading the last chapters of a book I’d already decided I didn’t like. Frankly, I felt betrayed.If this weak-tea erotica was Canada’s contribution to the global genre of smart and sordid contemporary fiction, what did this say about the Canadian aesthetic itself? Girl Crazy seemed to exemplify every awful CanLit stereotype: timid when it tried to be explicit; dated when it tried to be modern. How could our country’s “nastiest” writer be this boring?
So I dismissed Russell Smith. He was the band that everyone loved, that everyone was listening to, that I took secret, smug pleasure in disliking. He could fool everyone else. But not me.
— 3 —
A SELF-IMPORTANT BIOGRAPHICAL INTERLUDE THAT YOU CAN TOTALLY SKIP
Learning how to write—learning how to do anything, really—is an exercise in mimicry. The same way a toddler learns how to smile and frown by observing the facial expressions of his/her parents, a writer reads the sentences and paragraphs written by the authors s/he admires, and, consciously or not, attempts to replicate them. In my early twenties, I discovered the league of midcentury novelists that David Foster Wallace dubbed The Great Male Narcissists—Updike, Roth, Bellow, Mailer—which supercharged my desire to write great fiction about narcissistic males and the great sex (they thought) they were having.
But there was a problem. Those writers, though I learned much from them, were all American, and, as such, revelled in that special sort of brashness and vanity that only Americans seem able to conjure (this is true even of their soft-hearted heirs: Eggers, Chabon, etc). I was keen, as time went on, to find someone a little closer to home upon whom I could attach, barnacle-like, my admiration and esteem. Someone a little more culturally/geographically/politically in tune with my own life experience. Someone who might prove there was a place in Canadian literature for the rakish, explicit, self-important style I had (unsurprisingly) adopted as “my thing.”
But David Eddie only ever wrote that one great novel. And Douglas Coupland was too weird. And Robertson Davies was too earnest. And I could never connect with Mordecai Richler’s writing the same way I connected with Philip Roth’s (even though it seemed, much of the time, like they were writing the exact same books). When Pasha Malla came on the scene, he seemed an ideal candidate—he was about my age and wrote about contemporary people in the contemporary world. But as terrific as his stories were, I wanted him to be meaner,wilder. His meanness and wildness were of the Robert Coover variety, and I never felt quite clever enough to be in on the joke.
And, so, then: Russell Smith.
Rakish, explicit, self-important. He had the right reputation, and Girl Crazy seemed like the right place to start. I could hardly believe it had taken me this long to find the right guy to imitate. But even while I was in the midst of reading and disliking Girl Crazy, I had a sense that I was disliking it not for its textual shortcomings, but, rather, simply, because it wasn’t what I had anticipated. I had wanted Russell Smith to occupy a very specific place in the Canadian canon. I wanted to sidle up beside him and claim a bit of the territory he had done the hard work of annexing.
But Russell Smith wasn’t the writer I hoped he’d be. Or, to be more specific, he wasn’t the writer I hoped to become. Or, to be even more specific, he was the writer I was afraid of becoming.
— 4 —
DISCOVERING THE SECRET OF SELF-HATING MEN
With all of this context, you can surely imagine the despicable bias with which I dove into Confidence. Knives out. But in the course of reading it, I was turned around. And the thing that turned me around was that I felt I’d finally learned Russell Smith’s deep, dark secret.
Every writer has one. It’s the fundamental belief or trauma that compels them to display their beliefs and traumas for public consumption in the first place; the thing they’re constantly seeking to make sense of. And I suspect Smith’s secret is one that he and I share:
We are men, and we are terrified of ourselves.
This first occurred to me when I finished the story from which the collection takes its title—which, ironically, is the story that veers closest to confirming all the stuff people say about Russell Smith.
Three sentences into “Confidence” and we’ve already been introduced to five different characters (by the third page, there are ten). It’s a sort of drawing-room comedy that takes place in an upscale restaurant, where that big cast of stuck-up rich folks stands around drinking scotch, debating the horsepower/torque ratio of their Jags, explaining how best to pan-sear scallops, conspiring to acquire Xanax and Ativan, offending and seducing one another (often simultaneously).
It requires close attention to keep track of all these half-drawn caricatures, but there’s a method to the messiness; navigating the dialogue is as dizzying and disarming as actually trying to eavesdrop on a conversation in a busy lounge. The story is full of cool little moments, like: “She unwrapped her shiny legs from their skirt-splitting pose and she stood, with the unlit cigarette in her hand.”*
[*Note the strange cadence of that sentence; what is that comma doing in there?—more on Smith’s arrhythmia below.]
It was the ending of “Confidence” that got to me, though. Among the “privileged and pompous” cast is a young guy dressed in black, sitting alone at a table, scribbling in a notebook. A few of the central characters comment on his presence, but he’s window-dressing, mostly. He doesn’t even get a name until the second-to-last page of the story. But as the last of the revellers disappears into the Toronto evening, we shift to his point of view and get this revealing penultimate paragraph:
What he needed was some kind of confidence. He had confidence in his writing, and that was it. That’s where he’d show them. He’d show them confidence. He’d come back tomorrow night, and the night after that, and write down everything he saw.
The obvious thing would be to proclaim that this nameless observer is Russell Smith’s proxy, and that this little O. Henry twist of perspective proves Smith’s detachment from the so-hip-it-hurts world with which he is so often associated. But that character’s detachment is far less interesting than his aspiration to find his place amongst those lechers and misogynists and assholes. Throughout the night he has observed these people at their worst (one predatory dude exclaims about the “wall-to-wall cunt”) and his response is not to target them with his wit and alacrity, but rather to join them, to demonstrate his confidence so that he might become one of them.
These are the urges that all self-conscious, self-aware males fear: the urge to indulge in the social and physical privilege of their masculinity; the urge to accept as normal (and revel in) all those brutish animal impulses to which they are chromosomally susceptible (lust, avarice, subjugation, etc.). These urges are what Russell Smith’s writing is all about. How thoughtlessly even the most well-meaning men give in to those urges is the terrifying dilemma he is trying to resolve.
While this may not be an epiphany to Smith’s longtime readers, it was to me, so when I finished “Confidence” (which ends on page 124, a good three-quarters through the book), I doubled back and, with this new perspective, reread the entire volume from the beginning.
And of course it all started to make sense.
— 5 —
THIS IS WHERE IT ALL STARTS TO MAKE SENSE
According to popular notions of what Russell Smithesqueness entails, Confidence is probably the most Russell Smithesque book that Russell Smith has ever written. But the things that Smith does best in this book aren’t the things upon which his reputation (see above) is built. Confidence isn’t particularly nasty or poisonous, and I certainly never had the sense that Smith was having a blast sniping away at easy targets. I mean, the Toronto Star isn’t entirely off-base when it says (in its review of Confidence) that Smith has “no interest in the prevailing wheat germ ethos of CanLit.” But such a statement diminishes the very thing that feels essential to me, now, about Smith’s work: his compassion.
There’s a sensibility about Russell Smith’s writing that is distinctly of this country—tolerant, temperate, humble—and it’s what makes him singular among the other male writers (the GMNs, the LBPers, etc.) who muck around in similar thematic territory. Stripped away is all of that self-determinist ideology and meritocratic nonsense that keeps you at a distance from characters like Rabbit Angstrom and Nathan Zuckerman (ie., all that Americanness). Ironically, it’s Smith’s lack of confidence that makes Confidence special. Which is a compliment, even if it doesn’t sound like one.
The Troubled Dudes in Confidence are mostly childless, mostly living in gentrified/gentrifying Toronto neighborhoods, mostly involved in semi-committed relationships that they’re in the midst of destroying. In fact, every male protagonist in this collection bears such a similarity to the last that it’s often difficult, looking back, to differentiate between the guy who works for the organization that might be an arts trust, or the guy studying McLuhan, or the guy working for the other organization that might be an arts trust. Which isn’t as confusing as you might imagine, and actually makes for a rather immersive reading experience. It’s not narrowness of scope, it’s consistency: it gives you a strong sense of Smith’s deep sympathy for these Troubled Dudes, and, likewise, the depths to which he is willing to plunge in order to makes sense of their nonsensical, self-defeating behaviour.
There might be an analogy here to Francois Truffaut’s famous proclamation that “it is impossible to make an anti-war film [because]to show something is to ennoble it.” Similarly, it’s impossible for Smith to be truly nasty to his Troubled Dudes, or poison them, or skewer them, or otherwise treat them as targets for his sardonic wit, because choosing to spend time with them in the first place is a such a meaningful act of empathy. Even as he details the calamitous consequences of their idiotic logic, the mere fact of their existence within these pages is proof that they’re human, and fallible; and, in many cases, well-meaning and self-defeating and worthy of compassion. Unlike some of the other writers you could compare Smith to—Amis, Ellis, etc.—he doesn’t seem to take any pleasure in putting his Troubled Dudes through the wringer. He’s not a vengeful God, just an exasperated one.
Reading Girl Crazy, it bothered me that Smith kept stepping up to the line of propriety but never seemed willing to cross it. I mistook this for a lack of courage. But the further I got into Confidence, the more I came to see that Smith isn’t nearly as filthy as his reputation suggests. He writes about sex, yeah, sure, and about adulterers and prostitutes, but he never revels in it. There’s a kinda explicit sex scene in the story “Gentrification,” but it’s rushed, sparse, because Smith wants to get to what happens after, which is always the more important thing; in this case, the couple is interrupted by their noisy downstairs neighbours, leaving them “lying on top of each other, their skin damp and cooling, and Tracy’s penis shrinking inside her.”What sits on the other side of the line of propriety isn’t what interests Smith. In fact, the whole notion of approaching some perilous moral limit and being unable to breach it is prevalent everywhere in this collection. It may very well be the theme of the book.
For example: the Troubled Dude at the centre of “Gentrification” finds the strength of will to put off the advances of his downstairs neighbour; then, later, is unsuccessful in his attempts to recruit a young woman into a sex-photo scheme. In both cases, the seducer is stymied—no one fucks anyone else, the line remains uncrossed, the thing that could happen doesn’t happen. But it’s not (as I thought earlier) a disinterest in dramatic possibility. Let’s call it, instead, tantric fiction—it’s satisfying precisely because the tension is never released.
I will admit, now, that there is something weirdly off-tempo about Smith’s writing style (see above re: the mystery comma). He writes the way a person might talk, and it sometimes translates poorly into text; I suffer a bit of cognitive dissonance with some of his sentences. But my second time through Confidence I felt the real power of his prose. There are some beautiful sentences (“He walked for quite a few blocks, not towards home”) and they aren’t beautiful for their simplicity, or incisiveness, or poeticism, but merely for their matter-of-fact cleverness. With all these bullet-fast, verb-fuelled lines, it’s easy to make the Hemingway parallel, but beneath all that leanness and lucidity there are hints of self-conscious Nabokovian wordplay (so, yeah, maybe Barbara Gowdy was right). Herein lies another problem with Smith’s reputation: he’s a much more dynamic, diverse writer than he gets credit for.
An example of this diversity is the story “Raccoons,” a Hitchcockian domestic thriller and my favourite thing in the entire book. It’s not one of these precious, polished-gem short stories, but rather a terrible little nightmare that unfolds, over the course of twenty-five pages, with stomach-turning suspense.It demonstrates a deftness for plotting that Smith’s reputation as an urban portraitist doesn’t necessarily celebrate, and, like so much else, subverts the notion of what Russell Smithesqueness is all about.
The scope of “Raccoons” is perfect: a single day. The premise is tight: a Troubled Dude (who is also a Troubled Dad) sneaks into his garage, urgently searching for a missing treasure (a sex tape, we later learn). Throughout the rest of the story, information is expertly vouchsafed—his wife’s public passive-aggression, the secret antagonist he’s hoping to assuage. It all peaks with a queasy scene in which the Troubled Dude/Dad is forced to briefly leave his infant son behind in a parked car. And even though you kinda know how all the threads will eventually converge (horribly, of course), Smith pulls it off with such expertise that the experience feels much more satisfying, much more enlightening, than if he’d been trying to surprise us the entire time.
Because sublimity, in art, isn’t being surprised by a new thing. It’s experiencing a familiar thing done masterfully. Maybe that’s a good way to characterize Russell Smith. And maybe that’s a good way to describe how I’ve started to see his work: a masterful artist doing a familiar thing sublimely.
— 6 —
THE PATRIARCH OF TROUBLED DUDES
“Raccoons” is indicative, too, of Russell Smith’s struggle with the peculiar contradictions of what it means to be male in the modern world. Specifically, those “brutish animal impulses” and what we do with them. The Troubled Dudes in his stories are constantly channeling their irrepressible genetic urges into the tiniest everyday transactions. Whether they’re flirting with bartenders, or negotiating with tired wives, or berating the contractors who are fixing their eavestroughs, or breaking up (or avoiding breaking up) fights in the street, they are at once self-consciously male, and aware, constantly, of their baser instincts, and how these instincts control them. A lot of those urges and instincts are pretty foul, and to treat them (and the men who wrestle with them) with such charity—as Russell Smith does—suggests to me that he recognizes parts of himself (as I certainly did/do) in many of these guys. He is the Troubled Dude from which all his Troubled Dudes are descendant.
You never get the sense, reading those other Famous Male Writers, that they’re afraid of becoming the characters in their books. The opposite, in fact. Updike and Roth, no matter how much they denied it throughout their careers, wrote with such a naked, autobiographical inclination that it sometimes felt like they were celebrating their personal prejudices and transgressions. Bret Easton Ellis has made an entire career out of commemorating his own wild life. And Norman Mailer—well, he wrote a book called Advertisements for Myself and ran a vainglorious campaign for Mayor of New York City, so perhaps no elaboration is necessary.
In the end, all the things that most frustrated me about Russell Smith—his restraint, his earnestness, his Canadianness—are the things that I’ve come to appreciate the most. You’re always hardest on the authority figures who disappoint you. But what I should have seen was that Russell Smith was/is the exact right person to emulate: a comrade in insecurity, a writer so magically in sync with his subject matter, so shrewd in his application of satire and sympathy, that he has somehow managed to build a reputation for mercilessness that is proven false with every word that he writes.
— 7 —
But just to make sure this was all for real, not just some convenient repentance of my literary sins, I went back and reread a few long portions of Girl Crazy. The final pages, in particular, struck me.The narrator, who during the course of the novel has made just about every terrible decision a man can make when it comes to matters of sex/violence/money, runs into a female student in the hallways of the community college where he teaches. After a flirtatious exchange, he remarks:
He could drag her into a computer lab, wherever, and she would follow him, let him do whatever he wanted. Women were not so foreign, really, not so unlike him. He knew he should leave her there too, in this moment; his instinct—his instinct for keeping the upper hand, he supposed—told him that.
It’s clear to me, now, that Girl Crazy is a cautionary tale. And I discovered further proof of this, right at the beginning of the book, on the dedication page, which reads: “For the edification of HUGO.”
Having recently become a parent myself, I’ve learned that you don’t edify your child by targeting insiders or skewering the privileged or by being particularly nasty or poisonous, you do it by expressing sympathy for the challenges they will face, and if you fear that you might not be able to demonstrate, in your behaviour, how best to meet those challenges, you share what you know of the consequences.
Confidence is all about consequences. The consequences of being blind to your physical entitlement, of succumbing to your misguided, self-destructive instincts. And to prove that I have been edified by reading it, I will confess the misguided, self-destructive act that my entitled male point of view enabled:
As I told you earlier, I spent years searching for a Canadian writer after whom I could model myself. But did you notice how narrowly I limited my list of candidates? Inexplicably, while living in a country that boasts perhaps the most prodigious roster of women writers in the entire English-speaking world, I didn’t once consider that the person I should aspire to be like might be female. The entire time I was looking for someone to read deeply, someone to learn from, I was reading deeply and learning from writers like Stacey May Fowles and Zoe Whittall and Lynn Coady and Christine Fischer Guy and Annabel Lyon and Gowdy and Atwood and Munro, and for some reason, through the fog—which didn’t seem at all like a fog but rather like crystal clarity (the kind of authoritative clarity with which one is gifted at birth merely by luck of chromosomal arrangement)—I couldn’t see that I was all along being instructed and influenced in the exact way I was seeking to be instructed and influenced.
How can that kind of categorical error not make you terrified of yourself?
Russell Smith knows exactly what I’m talking about.
—A CNQ Web Exclusive, October 2017