'Fiction as Method' brings authors into dialogue with artists, technologists, theorists and filmmakers in order to explore the diverse ways in which fiction manifests

Fiction as Method, Sternberg Press, 2017.

A Conference on Counterfactuals and Virtualities in Art and Culture
I am an artist, and therefore a liar. Distrust everything I say. I am telling the truth.  ~ Ursula LeGuin
It seems to me that I am walking about in my sleep, as though fiction and life were blended. ~ August Strindberg

When Thomas More’s Utopia was first published in 1516 it was taken so seriously by some members of the church that the possibility of sending missionaries to convert the godless population of the imaginary island was discussed. Even if no missionary set sail, the incident reveals how a fiction might have real and unexpected effects on a world it seemed to distance itself from.
Perhaps the effect most readily associated with fiction is a feeling of escape, a flight from this world into another. Yet beyond escapism, fictions are an operative part of everyday life, whether it be in the dark foundations of currencies and nations, or as the founding gesture of movements to freedom, lucidity and the creation of alternatives to what “is”.
Approaching fiction as a method allows us to investigate these myths, tricks, possibilities and futures as they manifest in a wide variety of forms – including but not limited to the written word. As such, Fiction as Method will bring authors into dialogue with artists, technologists, theorists and filmmakers in order to explore the diverse ways in which fiction manifests. The aim is to explore the concept through direct and indirect means, ultimately considering how fictions proliferate, take on flesh and come to act in the world.
Organised by Jon K. Shaw and Theo Reeves-Evison. Generously supported by the Centre for Cultural Studies, the Department of Visual Culture, and the Graduate School Goldsmiths.

John McGreal - a tragic-comic account of a modern man who has sadly lost it altogether. Unsure of who or what it is that he has lost

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John McGreal, Book of It, Matador, 2009.

The narrative of The Book of It is a tragic-comic account of a modern man who has sadly lost it altogether. Unsure of who or what it is that he has lost, in the company of an unforgettable cast of idiosyncratic characters with whom he shares many trials, he nevertheless undertakes a remarkable journey in search of it into the unknown realm of terra incognita.

Gordon Sheppard - A "documentary fiction", a seminal work that reinvents the audio-visual revolution of the last century. Interweaving photographs, documents, and images with testimonies

Image result for Gordon Sheppard, HA!: A Self-Murder Mystery,
Gordon Sheppard, HA!: A Self-Murder MysteryMcGill-Queen's University Press, 2003.               

On 15 March 1977, with his wife's consent, celebrated writer and former terrorist Hubert Aquin blew his brains out on the grounds of a Montreal convent school. Shocked by this self-murder, a filmmaker friend feels compelled to understand why Aquin killed himself - and discovers, at the heart of the tragedy, an unforgettable love story. A "documentary fiction" - a category which includes In Cold Blood and The Executioner's Song - HA! is a seminal work that reinvents the audio-visual revolution of the last century. Interweaving photographs, documents, and images with testimony from Aquin's friends and contemporaries, Aquin himself, and the writers and artists who influenced him, this intriguing novel takes the reader on a Joycean tour of a metropolis in the midst of political and cultural turmoil.

Why doesn't our prize-infested world offer an award for the quirkiest, thickest, most infuriating book of the year? It's the one prize Gordon Sheppard would surely win for HA! A Self-Murder Mystery (McGill-Queen's University Press, 870 pages, $39.95).
HA! concerns the death of Hubert Aquin (1929-1977), the avant-garde novelist, whose suicide was a trauma for intellectual Quebec. At a glance it resembles other longish academic books, but the content is far from ordinary. It's a biographical stew, more dossier than narrative, crammed with interviews, letters, photos and maps. It sounds like a recipe for literary disaster but turns out to be the strangely enlivening story of a chronic depressive and at the same time a sympathetic treatise on suicide that inadvertently provides excellent reasons for staying alive (one reason: eventually you get to read about grotesque culture heroes like Aquin). Sheppard spent more than two decades studying that famous death, interviewing everyone from Aquin's intimate women friends (naturally, each of them thought she was the one who understood him) to his cleaning lady. Perhaps few will read this ungainly tome, but those who do are unlikely to regret it. I began it almost on a whim and found myself incapable of stopping. Sheppard takes us deep into an exotic world, now mainly forgotten even by those who lived it, where romantic nationalism became a generation's mad obsession, where poets and singers were suddenly society's heroes, and where otherwise sensible Montrealers spoke of revolution as if it were likely to happen at any minute. Aquin, who was drunk on revolution when not drunk on alcohol, was close to that world's centre. At times, in fact, he seemed to be the centre, particularly when critics called him both the greatest Quebec writer of the day and the most potent figure in Quebec culture. He was a handsome intellectual with a genius for recasting his daily existence as melodrama. "It is my life that will turn out to have been my super-masterpiece," he declared. Somehow he transmuted the petty failures of his work into an approximation of tragedy. He taught a little but didn't like it. He was a Radio-Canada and National Film Board producer who found the work unsatisfying. He yearned for a career in business, dreamt of being a banker, even tried being a stockbroker. He nursed fantasies of driving in the Grand Prix. He lost his job with a book publishing company owned by Power Corporation, mainly because he publicly accused his boss, Roger Lemelin, of being a colonialist. Though Aquin's luck was never good (when a newspaper hired him as editor, it folded three days later), he collaborated with misfortune. He sought rejection as if it were the Holy Grail. Some friends considered his entire working life a succession of suicides. Money, of course, was always short. From time to time he dodged writs of seizure from his first wife, whose child-support payments he had trouble maintaining, and at his death he left his second wife $10,000 in debt. His books were more admired than read; in his last year the royalties from his four novels amounted to $1,698.34. He was no more successful in another career choice -- freedom fighter. In 1964 he announced he was going "underground" to promote a free Quebec through terrorist acts. (Do revolutionaries normally announce they are going underground? Listen, it was Quebec in the '60s -- what can I tell you?) Instead he spent four months in a psychiatric clinic. That was where he wrote his first novel, Prochain épisode (1965), about an imprisoned revolutionary. Aquin scripted and starred in his own death. As with many suicides, it had out-of-town tryouts. In his own mind it ran in previews for many years: "Since the age of 15 I have not ceased wishing for a beautiful suicide." He was compulsively literary, so naturally, when he made an early attempt to commit suicide in a room at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel, he registered under the name of one of his fictional protagonists, a character who commits suicide. Naturally he never paid the bill because no such person existed. He often discussed the inevitability of his suicide with Andrée Yanacopoula, the Tunisian-born doctor of Greek-French parentage who shared his last 12 years, became the mother of his third son and provides Sheppard's best material. Hubert let Andrée know when he was about to shoot himself, and after it happened she said she understood. His friend Gerald Godin, the poet and politician, wrote: "I think Hubert made a complete success of his suicide. Hubert's only masterpiece is his suicide." His first wife was less enthusiastic. She saw him as a selfish scoundrel who left her and their two boys penniless. "I can only speak ill of him," she said. It angered her that he killed himself outside the Villa Maria convent, the location of her happy schoolgirl memories. "It was no doubt a way for him to have his revenge." Sheppard loads on to the Aquin story his own sexual-political theories (he thinks the Conquest of 1759 emasculated the Quebec male, which in turn "led to the conquest of the Quebec male by the Quebec female") and discusses his own problems with his mom. He lards his book with quotes from many historic figures and lists famous suicides, casually mixing the fictional with the historical, so that Sylvia Plath, Socrates and Kurt Cobain appear alongside Juliet and Emma Bovary. If Aquin speaks of science, Sheppard throws in photos of Francis Crick and James D. Watson. Sheppard also finds several occasions to mention the feature film he produced in 1975, Eliza's Horoscope, which is seldom mentioned by anyone else. Pasted into the book we find an envelope that contains Hubert's last letter to Andrée, reproduced right down to the yellow lined paper he used. In another envelope there's a reproduction of his last postcard to his son. It all seems too much, a frantic waving for attention. And yet the core of the material, Aquin's astonishing story and the still more astonishing Montreal of the 1970s, come through clearly and unforgettably. Despite himself, despite his taste for self-display, Sheppard has made an exceptional book. His description of a moment in history has become in itself a bizarre literary event. - Robert Fulford  http://www.robertfulford.com/HubertAquin.html

Lee Henderson - an oddly comic, often grotesque panorama of city life like something out of Bosch – or Pynchon

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Lee Henderson, The Man Game, Penguin Canada, 2009.

On a recent Sunday afternoon in Vancouver, a young man stumbles upon a secret sport invented more than a century before, at the birth of his city. Thus begins The Man Game, Lee Henderson's epic tale of love, requited and not, that crosses the contemporary and historical in an extravagant, anarchistic retelling of the early days of a pioneer town on the edge of the known world. In 1886, out of the smouldering ashes of the great fire that destroyed much of the city, Molly Erwagen—former vaudeville performer—arrives from Toronto with her beloved husband, Samuel, to start a new life. Meanwhile, Litz and Pisk, two lumberjacks exiled after the fire and blamed for having started it, are trying to clear their names. Before long, they've teamed up with Molly to invent a new sport that will change the course of that fledgling city's history.

“In its ambition, iconoclasm, and accomplishment The Man Game is reminiscent of Mordecai Richler’s great, ribald epic Solomon Gursky Was Here. Lee Henderson invents a history of Vancouver, Canada, and frontier life that satisfies and defies expectations as only the best fiction can. The Man Game is an extraordinary book written by a young writer who possesses remarkable powers of observation, description, and empathy. ” - David Bezmozgis

Readers familiar with the grim suburban landscape of Lee Henderson’s 2002 short-story collection The Broken Record Technique may be surprised to discover that the Saskatoon-born, Vancouver-dwelling author’s debut novel digs deep into the hoary ground of Canadian history. Set mostly during Vancouver’s early years – when the city, awaiting a CPR hookup to the rest of the country, was still a rowdy Wild West outpost – The Man Game is indeed a historical novel, but one that operates according to its own cracked logic, conjuring a city peopled by gruff woodsmen, indentured Chinese labourers, corrupt city officials, and rapacious, opium-addicted industrialists.
The invisible thread that connects all these people is the raunchy, subversive “man game.” Invented by 17-year-old ex-vaudeville actor Molly Erwagen, who arrives in Vancouver with her crippled husband Sammy amidst the great fire of 1886, the game combines the violence and histrionics of professional wrestling with the graceful acrobatics of ballroom dancing – “a waltz with a clap in the face.” Performed in the nude, the game becomes a wildly popular spectator sport among the city’s downtrodden – which is to say, nearly everyone.
Henderson’s tale skips among a myriad of characters, painting an oddly comic, often grotesque panorama of city life like something out of Bosch – or Pynchon, for that matter. Inevitably, just like one of the performers of the man game, Henderson does at times swing wide of the mark, faltering on the novel’s ambitious narrative sweep. Sammy’s ward, for example, a Snauq Indian who speaks in a wooden patois (“A deer go to hide in the water”), is about as subtle as the cigar-store variety. And Vancouver’s mythic past never really connects to the humdrum reality of the novel’s present-day narrator, who stumbles upon a cache of man game memorabilia in an east side basement.
But as pure spectacle, The Man Game is as brilliant and twisted as a funhouse mirror, and Henderson is a wildly seductive ringmaster. - Quill & Quire https://quillandquire.com/review/the-man-game/

“As a work of speculative historical fiction, as a study in the nature of unrequited love, as a song of praise to the power the objects of our affections wield, The Man Game becomes more than a ripping good yarn; it’s a stunning achievement.” –Winnipeg Free Press

“This is not your mom’s historical novel… It’s clear that Lee Henderson is very clever and immensely talented.” –The Vancouver Sun

“The Man Game is one of the most entertaining, rollicking and original Canadian novels I've ever read.” - Toronto Star

“Lee Henderson has written an audacious, inventive, genre-bending debut novel." - Chronicle Herald

“One of the strangest, strongest and most fascinating pieces of fiction to come around in some time...Totally captivating and terrifically different, this is a novel filled with action, tension and magic.” - Owen Sound Sun Times

Most recent draft of the cover art for the book

Lee Henderson's comic world novel a powerful look at often-forgotten time
 Lee Henderson, The Road Narrows As You Go, Hamish Hamilton, 2014.

All Wendy Ashbubble has ever wanted is to draw comics as well as Charles Schultz’s Peanuts—and to one day see her creations grace the pages of a major daily newspaper. Growing up in Victoria in the 1970s, Wendy dreams of getting out, getting away … and getting recognition for her talent. And there’s another, never-whispered motivation that prompts her to seek her fortune: a deeply buried memory and unshakeable belief that her unknown father is Ronald Reagan, the fortieth president of the United States.
A chance meeting in Victoria with an attractive-but-mysterious travelling artist inspires Wendy to take the plunge, and she runs away to live in a dilapidated artists’ commune in San Francisco. There, amid the haze of top-quality weed, unbridled creativity, and unfettered sex, her dream begins to take tangible shape. With the aid of Frank Fleecen, an up-and-coming bonds trader and agent, Wendy’s Strays are soon competing for newsprint space against the likes of Berkeley Breathed, Jim Davis, and Bill Watterston … even against Wendy’s beloved Charles Schultz himself.
But there are darker shades on the pencilled horizon: the spectre of AIDS, unexplained disappearances, bad therapy, junk bonds, demonology, and SEC agents investigating Frank’s business protocols.
The Road Narrows As You Go is simultaneously the portrait of a young woman struggling to find her place and a bright, rollicking, unflinching depiction of the 1980s. It embodies all the brash optimism and ruthless amoralism of the decade, as well as its preoccupation with repressed memories, and fully captures the flavour of an uncertain but deeply vibrant era.

I can't say that it's a universal reaction, but in my experience it's a fairly common one: at a certain point in the revision process - often upon receipt of an editor's notes - a writer will be inclined to scrap everything and start over.
Most writers resist this urge. Not so for Victoria writer and creative writing teacher Lee Henderson who, upon receiving the editorial letter for his most recent manuscript last September, decided, after six drafts, to start again. He wrote a new version of his novel between January and May of this year; The Road Narrows As You Go was published in September.
"I finished it in mid-May, and we went straight into editing," the 40-year-old writer says, when we meet for a mid-afternoon pint at the Bent Mast, a pub near his home in Victoria's James Bay neighbourhood. The editorial notes served as a guide for the last draft. "My one task for this was to keep on focus, to tell the essential bits of this very weird story and not the other stuff."
The experiment - "a really nerve-racking experience" - was a success; the novel is a delightfully immersive, ramshackle read, moving and ludicrous by turns, steeped in and faithful to its setting, the early 1980s world of cartoonists living and working in San Francisco. Henderson, a lifelong fan of daily comic strips and other graphic storytelling who once wanted to be a fulltime cartoonist, throws himself wholly into the project.
Wendy Ashbubble, the focal character of the novel, is a secret Canadian, raised in Victoria although she claims to be from Cleveland. Convinced that President Reagan is her father (her mother was an actress), she is devoted, almost to a fault, to her comic strip Strays. Throughout the novel, Henderson creates examples of the strip, which features a cast of animals living in a vacant lot near the crumbling mansion Ashbubble lives in with a motley crew of other comic writers and illustrators.
The house itself has a reputation, cemented early on by a wake held for one of its most famous inhabitants, one of the first victims of the then-unnamed AIDS epidemic. Ashbubble is drawn into the sketchy family of comic strip creators, her world growing to include both fictional characters and real-life figures, including Maus-scribe Art Spiegelman, Peanuts-eminence Charles Schulz and, later, upstart purist and Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson. The use of real-life figures is both effective and, as Henderson confides, unavoidable.
"That was a little strange," he says, with perhaps a deliberate understatement. "It was meant to be an opportunity to pay a little homage to them in the middle of the book." The appearances, however, go beyond mere cameos.
"I couldn't figure out how you do a book about the comic world and not include these people. It starts to feel like you're avoiding it because you don't know how to deal with it."
Wendy's world sprawls outward to include junk bond impresarios, fledgling media moguls and investigators for the SEC.
Henderson, it turns out, isn't just writing about a cartoonist, but creating a vivid portrait of the early 1980s itself, a society in the shadow of Reaganomics and the White House's denial of AIDS, of free-flowing drugs and sex, and the costs of both. It's an effective and powerful piece, a historical novel of a time which most of us lived through, but have likely forgotten.
While the historical nature of the novel isn't much of a surprise - Henderson's much lauded last novel, The Man Game, was set in a slightly off-kilter historical rendering of Vancouver, where the writer lived from the time he was 19 - the geographical setting might be.
"If you're going to do a book about comic strips, (San Francisco is) the ultimate city. That's where they all flocked. Starting with the Robert Crumb era, but even before that ... It's always been a graphic designers' and illustrators' city. The 'Girl Friday' in Vertigo, that Hitchcock movie, is a cartoonist. It's always had this notoriety as being the place for cartoonists."
The city itself was familiar to Henderson from frequent family vacations from his childhood home in Calgary.
"That was our road trip, we would drive down the coast to San Francisco, so I have really powerful memories associated with the same years that I loved comics."
Although memories of the city loom large in Henderson's adult consciousness, the novel avoids any sort of nostalgic glow: San Francisco, in The Road Narrows As You Go, is a grungy, edgy city, steeped in drugs, betrayal, and sex. There is, for example, a description of a bathhouse so unflinching it can't be quoted in a daily newspaper. This is entirely appropriate, emblematic of the novel as a whole: firmly rooted in the sordid, heartbreaking world inhabited by the creators of works typically consumed with one's morning bowl of cereal. It is to Henderson's considerable credit that he is able to bring both aspects to life so convincingly.
Robert J. Wiersema's new novel, Black Feathers, will be published next year. He has never been the subject of a comic before. - Robert J. Wiersema  www.vancouversun.com/news/Henderson+comic+world+novel+powerful+look+often+forgotten+time/10324802/story.html

The world behind the funny pages, as imagined by Lee Henderson in his sophomore novel The Road Narrows As You Go, is one rife with sex, drugs and complicated financial scheming as it follows the arc of a young cartoonist’s meteoric rise and catastrophic fall, sketching a vivid picture of the 1980s along the way.
In the beginning, Wendy Ashbubble’s strip, Strays, is a modest success syndicated in a handful of community papers and beloved by the other residents of No Manors, the once-home of legendary artist Hick Elmdales and a temporary home for other cartoonists.
The novel opens with Elmdales’ death from AIDS-related illness, which throws the whole house into disarray. While Hick is on his deathbed, Wendy inks a deal with Frank Fleecen, a toupeed Wall Street wizard who takes a liking to Strays and its creator. The two events create the chaos that lies at the heart of Henderson’s work. Elmdales’ death becomes a pivotal event not just for Wendy but for the entire art world.
Jonjay, an ephemeral artist who is perpetually successful, returns to the house on the eve of Hick’s funeral and serves to inject notes of chaos throughout the story. He stages a mock ceremony where the cartoonists gathered — from legends like Art Spiegelman to unknowns — eat pieces of “Elmdales’ flesh.” The ceremony reverberates throughout the book as a mysterious ritual, sending up the hysteria over Satanic ritual abuse throughout the 1980s.
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As the residents of No Manors grapple with Hick’s death, Wendy’s career begins to take off. The characters of Strays spread to more newspapers across the country and Fleecen hooks up marketing deals galore. Toys based on her characters are produced. Newspapers from coast to coast snap up the comic. But it’s all for naught — Fleecen’s manipulation of junk bonds catches the attention of the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Henderson tells the story of the rise and fall of Strays through the eyes of Wendy’s four assistants, creating a kind of motion sickness as the reader struggles with a hydra-like narrator’s voice, never quite sure of which perspective the tale is being told from.
Periodically, Henderson falls into bouts of esoteric history lectures on comics and art. He waxes on about newspaper strips and ink-stained legends, crafting excellent prose for the appropriately educated reader. But, unfortunately, for the uninitiated it is alienating, distracts from the otherwise compelling commentary and drama in the book and adds considerable length. - 

The heroine of Lee Henderson’s sprawling novel about art and commerce in the 1980s is Wendy Ashbubble, an ambitious young cartoonist who flees her Victoria home for San Francisco, where she sets up shop in a dilapidated hilltop mansion and artist commune dubbed No Manors. She authors a comic strip featuring pithy anthropomorphized animals entitled Strays, which rapidly transcends the underground status of her friends’ comics, becoming nearly as ubiquitous a cultural fixture as her beloved Peanuts. Wendy’s professional pursuits, romantic entanglements and adventures in cities and deserts over the course of several years supply The Road Narrows As You Go with its busy story, which is narrated in the first-person-plural by Wendy’s quartet of housemate-assistants, none of whom are particularly well-drawn. Our supernumerary narrators’ paucity of personality is symptomatic of this novel’s peculiar imbalance of character or incident or ideas, which it holds in abundance, and nuance or urgency or fresh insight, of which there is less than one might hope for.
Not that there’s any lack of data on our heroine. Wendy eats chocolate cereal and French toast for breakfast, constantly smokes weed, and always chooses the funnies over the news. She takes her work very seriously and, early in The Road Narrows As You Go, chooses Lucifer’s fast-track to mainstream success. Wendy’s defining characteristic, what makes her emblematic of the transition from the ’70s to the ’80s, is the blatant contradiction between the bohemian persona she adopts and the fundamentally bourgeois nature of her goals.
She becomes a client of Frank Fleecen, a millionaire junk bond titan and early cellular phone devotee permanently topped with an invincible toupée. Fleecen is older, married, energetic, obnoxious, sinister: the Faustian nature of his pact with Wendy is implied in the first mention of his Pynchonian surname. The overwhelming erotic allure Fleecen holds for our heroine would be baffling were it not for the way he’s carefully designed to fulfill her psychic need. Something in Wendy longs for legitimacy and commercial acceptance: seeing her creations transformed into sundry forms of lucrative merchandise seems as fulfilling for her as her peers’ approval or Strays’ ever-burgeoning syndication. Frank promises her maximum exposure and toy store displays with the same breath he uses to declare his love for her and for Strays, so by the novel’s emotional arithmetic she will inevitably become his lover. Or moll.
The history-laden passages are certainly among the strongest in the book. Yet at times they read an awful lot like a showcase for years of diligent research
But as much as this novel is about anything, it’s about an era and various milieux. The AIDS epidemic, Satanic Ritual Abuse, the Iran-Contra affair, the Challenger disaster, VHS vs. Betamax: There’s nary a major headline from the 1980s that doesn’t receive at least marginal acknowledgment in Henderson’s portrait of a decade. Meanwhile counterculture and comic-strip icons come out of the woodwork: H.R. Giger, Ralph Steadman and Hunter S. Thompson drop by, there’s a visit to Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey, a dinner with Maus author Art Spiegelman (who is, of course, a big fan of Wendy’s), a friendly encounter with Calvin & Hobbes author Bill Watterson (also a big fan) and a glimpse of Far Side author Gary Larson picking his nose at a public event (cause for a libel suit?). There is an entire chapter on a Macy’s parade, and a compelling, if totally fantastical, lunch with President Reagan, whom Wendy believes to be her biological father. I suppose all this captures the spirit of a fraught age. The history-laden passages are certainly among the strongest in the book. Yet at times they read an awful lot like a showcase for years of diligent research. (Though I’m fairly sure Henderson confuses Christopher Plummer with Christopher Lee).
This sweeping cultural survey aligns The Road Narrows As You Go with several recent novels, such as Zachary Lazar’s Sway, just about anything by Jonathan Lethem, or, most especially, Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, which roughly overlaps with The Road Narrows As You Go historically and shares with it a largely passive young female protagonist under the sway of older, authoritarian men, and an interest in critiquing the shallowness of the art world. But it’s in this critique that Henderson’s characters are, well, at their most cartoonish. He creates, for example, a gallery owner whose pretentious abbreviated declarations read like a godawful parody of DeLillo-speak: “My field is contemporary art, Justine sniffed. Autonomous radical ideas pushing the envelope et cetera. The artists I represent make demands. Conceptual. Found objects. Minimal. Postmodern.”
To be sure, Henderson, whose acclaimed previous works include the novel The Man Game and the short story collection The Broken Record Technique, is just as ambitious as his heroine — and he has more integrity. No one’s going to accuse Henderson of trying to sell out with The Road Narrows As You Go. Indeed, given its length and admirable resistance to synopsis or generic categorization, it’s a bit of a tough sell. But what made it a bit of a tough read is the fact that it’s teeming with observations about compromise, careerism and unchecked capitalism, yet little of it feels invested with a sense of lived experience or surprise. Until it reaches its genuinely moving and poetic denouement (a good reason to stick with it!), there are feelings described but little emotion, plenty of sex but little that’s sexy, lots of jokes but no robust sense of humour. It’s something of a rise-and-fall narrative with countless micro-undulations and I do believe that Henderson put everything he had into it. I wonder how it might have been had he opted to leave a few things out, if the road were a little more narrow to begin with. - José Teodoro 

Lee Henderson’s The Road Narrows as You Go plays out a life the author didn’t choose

Click here to read a short story called Gnomes With Knives

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Lee Henderson, The Broken Record Technique, Viking/Penguin, 2002.

Adolescent boys lost in sumo wrestler costumes battle it out in a suburban yard as their parents stake the odds. A boy disappears from his home, lured by a man who looks exactly like his father. A young man spends a potentially heroic day with his wife at the new wave pool, while trying to save his marriage. These are quirky, engaging stories both afflicted and inspired by the profound isolation and psychic drift that are inherent in a world of talk show television, mega-malls, and suburban sprawl. In his stunning and critically acclaimed debut collection, Lee Henderson evokes a world both utterly strange, yet eerily familiar.

“Vancouverite Lee Henderson has 10 word-perfect stories of suburban satire that will confirm all your most bitter memories." - - The Georgia Straight

“…Fans of literary texture and depth will undoubtedly love losing themselves in Broken Record’s labyrinth of language.” - - EYE weekly

“It’s a strange and disquieting world and one that we are privileged to visit though the 10 stories in this inaugural collection.” - - Vancouver Sun

Lee Henderson's debut collection of short fiction is an eccentric, mostly scintillating affair, packed with oddities and graced with an emotional pitch that warbles between ennui and outright heartbreak. The Broken Record Technique seems like the kind of writing that is usually pegged as suburban, but Henderson's eyes and ears are capable of looking outside of the strip malls, and a few of his stories bring an eerily urbanized view of farm life to the page.
Henderson's best stories are wholly unforgettable. The finale of The Broken Record Technique, the enigmatically titled "W," seems like the stuff of a bizarre TV movie: a young boy is abducted from his family's small-town home by a man who looks exactly like his father. The only witness to the crime is a remarkable toy, an electronic talking marmot blessed with formidable artificial intelligence. As the police haplessly search for clues to the case, the marmot gradually starves to death like a plush tamagotchi, losing its recorded evidence. Other highlights include "Spines a Length of Velcro," the tale of two suburban preteens forced to don plastic suits and sumo-wrestle for the delight of their betting, flirting, and inebriated parents; and "The Unfortunate," the touching tale of a doomed little boy born with a head the shape of a football who grows up in a rural home and eventually takes a job killing chickens.
A few of these stories feel like filler--postmodernism by the numbers that could have come from the pen of any young North American male writer. Nonetheless, the best stories in The Broken Record Technique far outshine the weak ones, and this is a formidable (and entertaining) first collection. --Jack Illingworth

In the west there was a massive stand of cumulus cloud so like a city seen from a distance – from the bow of an approaching ship – that it might have had a name.” That elegant sentence comes from the late John Cheever’s most famous short story, “The Swimmer,” a satire about a man who swims a relay of suburban pools to his empty home. Like all great writers, Cheever had a talent analogous to that of a virtuoso musician, bearing his tremendous understanding of musical form (rhythm, melody, tone) with humility.
Lee Henderson’s story “The Runner,” one of nine in his first collection, The Broken Record Technique, bears the subheading “after John Cheever.” The story of a man who jogs a relay of fitness-club treadmills across Vancouver, “The Runner” so offends the legacy of Cheever that, if the writing weren’t so bad, one would suspect a parody.
Henderson joins writers like Sheila Heti, Hal Niedzviecki, and Judy MacDonald in adopting a trendy “faux naive” style. Treating language like playdough, he twists and stretches it beyond breaking, forming weird, often gratuitously impenetrable stories about suffering children, evil and forlorn adults, and talking inanimate objects. Rare moments of cleverness, even beauty, seem the product of chance rather than control.
Heralded by some as experimental, the style is invariably undermined by technical ineptitude. Henderson struggles with such basics as character and setting, pronoun usage, dialogue, and avoiding clichés. Gaffes abound, and while they may be naive, they certainly aren’t faux. Henderson’s writing abandons humility, placing itself condemningly above its subjects, sneering with petty irony, often denying characters even the dignity of a name – proving that a great gulf lies between experimentation and learning to write. - quillandquire.com/review/the-broken-record-technique/

Lee Henderson is the award-winning author of The Broken Record Technique and The Man Game. His writing appears in the PEN Canada anthology Finding the Words and the speculative fiction anthology Darwin’s Bastards. For a decade he has written about contemporary Canadian artists for Border Crossings magazine. He has exhibited artwork in Vancouver, Toronto, and elsewhere, and curated shows of contemporary art and experimental music, including the inaugural selection for Hamish Hamilton Canada’s online gallery, The Looking Glass. He has led workshops for UBC and the Summer Literary Seminar and mentored at the Banff Centre for the Arts, and he currently teaches creative writing at the University of Victoria. His new novel, The Road Narrows As You Go, will be published by Hamish Hamilton in September 2014.

Interview by Anita Bedell

Chris Eaton has created a novel based on his namesakes (and himself) found on the Internet

Chris Eaton, Chris Eaton, a Biography, Book Thug, 2013.

CHRIS EATON, A BIOGRAPHY is a novel that arises from the idea that we have all been driven, at some point, to Google ourselves. And if you did, what did you find? That there are people out there who seem to have something in common with you? Dates, places, interests? How coincidental are these connections? And what are the factors that define a human life? We are the sum of our stories: Anecdotal constructs. We remember moments in our pasts the way we remember television episodes. In pieces. And we realize that our own memories are no more valid in the construction of our identities than stories we've heard from others. CHRIS EATON, A BIOGRAPHY constructs a life by using, as building blocks, the lives of dozens of other people who share nothing more than a name, identities that blur into each other with the idea that, in the end, we all live the same life, deal with the same hopes and fears, experience the same joys and tragedies. Only the specifics are different. From birth to death and everything in between, the narratives we share bring us closer to a truth about what it means to be alive. To be you.

Everyone ego surfs. The act of putting one’s name into a search engine is a measure of self-worth—proof you are important enough to be carved out of the Internet’s chaos by way of a Google algorithm. Blessed with a common name, Chris Eaton (the New Brunswick-born author and musician who does a pretty trippy version of Justin Timberlake’s SexyBack) uses the lives of other very real Chris Eatons as narrative fodder for a novel about his many namesakes.
There’s Chris Eaton the politician, the maker of Star Wars figurines, the tortured experimental musician, the Cure-obsessed weird kid, the 18th-century orphan, the wrestler. Chris Eaton is gay, straight, male, female, dead, alive, an enduring success at life, an abject failure. They are tied together only by name and by Chris Eaton’s beautifully overstuffed prose.
Nabokov could write about his back porch and make it interesting; Chris Eaton does much the same with his fellow Chris Eatons. On Chris Eaton, the portrait artist: “He could not picture being the only one wearing a seat belt and Tony being tossed neatly out the window as the van did its first flip, as if God had just reached in and yanked him out like a tissue, couldn’t recall Conrad’s head striking the passenger headrest, his nose driven sideways across his face, snapping like one of those plastic cases that kept cassette tapes high enough to see in the stacks previously made for LPs, couldn’t even fathom the steering wheel meeting Phil’s ribs, driving them into his bladder and eventually causing an infection that would prevent him from having kids and ruin his first marriage.”

Nestled in these marvelous, car-crash-worthy run-ons are dead-stop morsels of succinctness: “Sports, especially televised sports, were the lotteries of the chronically poor, on that level of social strata that exists beneath hope.” Ahh. You don’t read Chris Eaton: A Biography so much as surrender yourself to Chris Eaton’s barrage of effortless digression. -

The Internet didn’t invent narcissism, but it has had the effect of amplifying already powerful cultural trends taking us in that direction. Social networking, after all, has nothing social about it, but just provides a way for us to spend more time alone. The Internet is a mirror in which we endlessly examine ourselves, analyzing not just our own identities but the way others see (and evaluate) us. Or, taking the metaphor of the network, the Internet is a web that always has us at the centre.
Who, for example, hasn’t Googled him or herself? And when we find all of our name’s secret sharers, haven’t we wondered if there might be some mystical connection between us and that legion of virtual avatars and digital selves peeking out from behind the Cloud?
Such a sense of connection is the inspiration for Chris Eaton’s Chris Eaton: A Biography. Notably, it is not an autobiography. Chris Eaton has little to do with the Chris Eaton who is a Canadian musician (recording as Rock Plaza Central), and currently one of this country’s best under-the-radar writers. Instead what we have here is a composite portrait of a number of Chris Eatons: men and women, gay and straight, young and old. After a while it becomes hard to tell some of them apart, but that’s the point. The life you’re reading about might be your own.
The book’s loosely biographical structure follows Chris Eaton (all of them) from cradle to grave. But Eaton (the author) isn’t interested in telling a story in the traditional way, unless the tradition you’re referring to is that of the experimental “new novel” or magic realism. Within those terms of reference one can recognize a number of familiar elements, as we are constantly being sidetracked into rambling lists, historical background, flashy displays of esoteric research, and complex digressions dealing with obscure (and often imaginary) subcultures and secret societies.
It’s information overload, and it poses the question of just how all of this information — and we are all bits of information now — adds up to a life: that is, something coherent and meaningful with a beginning, middle and end. Your Facebook and MySpace pages, your LinkedIn profile and Twitter account, your personal homepage and network of friends, your genealogy, cache of Google searches and other digital spoor . . . you can package all of this together into an identity that can be sold to advertisers, but the whole will be less than the sum of the parts, and has little relation to your life as you experience it.
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What is it about us that is un-Googleable and most real? Nothing that can be captured between the covers of a standard biography, but rather those spots of time and flights of the imagination that defy the dry realism of data. In rendering these, the author Chris Eaton, like the painter Chris Eaton (one of his subjects), has as his goal “not to depict just one moment in the life of a person, nor even the complete biography . . . but to capture life itself in its entirety.”
All of this may make Chris Eaton (the book) sound a bit high-minded and programmatic, but that’s not how it plays. In the first place, the writing is alive with an energetic use of language and wit. Eaton’s similes are a particular delight. Take, for example, this description of a young Chris Eaton learning to swim:
“He was just a child, a spastic three-year-old with wet towels for feet, head like an overgrown ape’s paw, his legs like welded bows, too fast for his body, so they just bounced up and down like the limbs of some delicate, drunken ostrich.”
That’s perfect, both at capturing in a jumble of discordant analogies how an awkward three-year-old moves, and how those movements feel.
What’s even more impressive, however, is the way Eaton puts heart into his personal brand of magic realism, a self-consciously literary genre all too often taken over by intellectual gamesmanship and superficial cleverness. One of the Chris Eatons we meet is an experimental musician who finds his work falling in-between the derivative pop platitudes that provide ear candy for the masses (“music for people who hated music”) and the “equally frustrating” efforts of the avant-garde “who seemed to praise so-called ingenuity, but at the expense of true beauty or feeling.”
This is the same, frankly non-commercial middle-ground Eaton’s fiction occupies: exciting and experimental writing with intelligence and soul. - Alex Good www.thestar.com/entertainment/books/2013/05/16/chris_eaton_a_biography_is_really_a_novel_by_chris_eaton_review.html

Donald Hall and Pat Corrington Wykes undertook the work of excerpting the most arresting, enlivening, depressing, odious and/or inexplicable stories from a vast array of texts on the lives and creative practices of modern artists

Image result for Donald Hall and Pat Corrington Wykes, Anecdotes of Modern Art: From Rousseau to Warhol,
Donald Hall and Pat Corrington Wykes, Anecdotes of Modern Art: From Rousseau to Warhol, Oxford University Press, 1990.           

From the hilarity of Picasso's legendary banquet for Le Douanier Rousseau to the grotesque atmosphere of Andy Warhol's "Factory," Anecdotes of Modern Art moves through the modern era surveying the triumphs, miseries, and peculiarities of the world of art. Perhaps no epoch has witnessed more variety and experimentation than ours, with movements such as Expressionism, Cubism, and Surrealism radically reshaping the visual arts--and the artists connected with these revolutions are often as striking and occasionally as startling as the works they created. The anecdotes presented here--touching on almost 200 painters and sculptors--show what these artists were like, how they responded to the world, and how their work is a reflection of themselves.
Here is the fabled romantic life of Belle Epoch Paris, with Picasso and Braque ("Almost every evening, either I went to Braque's studio or Braque came to mine....A painting wasn't finished unless both of us felt it was"), Suzanne Valadon parading the streets of Paris with a nosegay of lettuce and live snails, and Yves Tanguy's wife hurling a forkful of fish at her husband's mistress, Peggy Guggenheim. And there are the stories of the Cedar Bar crowd--Pollock's legendary drinking, the famous softball games in East Hampton, and de Kooning's working method ("I think I'm painting a picture of two women but it may turn out to be a landscape"). The dark side of the creative life is represented by a number of poignant tales, such as the death of Egon Schiele: Bereft at the thought of his wife's dying, he spent her last night trying to capture her in a portrait, and in so doing contracted the flu himself and died three days later. Other tales are more disturbing, from Soutine's blue, decaying chickens ("I'm going to hang it up by the neck with a nail. In a few days it should be perfect") to Rothko's tragic suicide. And the notorious eccentricities of artists are all here too: Kokoschka's lifesize doll which he took for drives in his carriage, and Dali's obsessive routines (every day he ate the same food in the same restaurants and took the same walks, carrying a little piece of driftwood to ward off evil spirits).
But most of all, Hall and Wykes have brought together some of the most revealing insights into the artistic process itself. From Dufy's theory ("Nature, my dear sir, is only a hypothesis") and Picasso's wisdom ("You can't escape your own period. Whether you takes sides for or against it, you're always inside it"), to Sargent's reflection on the genre for which he is famous ("A portrait is a picture in which there is just a tiny little something not quite right about the mouth"), Anecdotes of Modern Art offers a unique glimpse into the private and working lives of many of the best-known artists of the modern era.

If I tell you a book is an encyclopedic and fast-paced tour of the interrelationship of making art and being in pain, need I say more? Anecdotes of Modern Art, which hit the shelves in 1990, was a joint project by Donald Hall and Pat Corrington Wykes. The two of them undertook the work of excerpting the most arresting, enlivening, depressing, odious and/or inexplicable stories from a vast array of texts on the lives and creative practices of artists from (as the subtitle states) Rousseau to Warhol. Hall is a poet, and the book’s organization tracks with a poet’s sensibility; topics listed in the index include Accidents, Agony at parting with work, Children, Dirtiness, Fears, Inability to work, Love affairs, Misanthropy, Physical Strength, Precocity, Rivalry, Shyness, Suicide, Trains and War. Topics with the highest number of citations are Animals, Death, Drinking, Money and Portraits.
Within the book’s individual sections, Hall and Wykes assemble and contextualize the anecdotes with brief introductions such as, ‘The more artist he became, the less snob’, or ‘When she was older her paintings became fashionable and she grew rich; she adopted bourgeois taste but not bourgeois manners’, or ‘As a good Communist, he knew that he should be expelled from the Party’, or ‘Duchamp gave him a glue carton labeled “gimme strength” ’. Many of the stories that follow traffic in either the cultivation or the rejection of an identity – as an artist, as a consumer of culture, as a creature of politics, as a member of an economic class. While a portion of the stories’ appeal comes from their easily extractable one-liners (Ad Reinhardt’s tidy ‘The artist as businessman is uglier than the businessman as artist’; Suzanne Valadon’s anti-bathing slogan ‘Washing is for pigs. I am a monkey, I am a cat’), it’s ultimately a much deeper tribute to the beauty of bohemia, as well as an invitation to the thorny exploration of how artists weigh the pros and cons of capitulating to the institutions they rely on for their survival.
I’m particularly partial to two mural-related anecdotes. The section on Diego Rivera discusses how he ‘accepted the challenge, early in the Depression, to paint a mural for the ultra-capitalist Rockefeller Center’. Rivera went on to drag his feet on the project and, when the Rockefellers appeared on-site with their friends, pretended he didn’t understand English. Ultimately, ‘Rivera could not resist adding the head of Lenin, which had not formed part of the plan he submitted to the Rockefellers. In 1933 the mural was destroyed.’
And the Mark Rothko section includes the following, quoted from Lee Seldes’s The Legacy of Mark Rothko:
‘The culturally enlightened whiskey heiress Phyllis Bronfman Lambert persuaded her father to commission Rothko to paint a series of murals for the new House of Seagram Building designed by Mies van der Rohe on Park Avenue . . . The huge hall, he became aware, was intended to be an expensive restaurant, “a place where the richest bastards in New York will come to feed and show off.” Rothko told [the art dealer] Fischer that he had taken the Seagram job with “strictly malicious intentions. I hope to paint something that will ruin the appetite of every son-of-a-bitch who ever eats in that room.” - Natalie Shapero   https://granta.com/best-book-1990-anecdotes-modern-art/

Héctor Abad Faciolince - a brilliant lesson in Colombian history, as it fluctuates between past, “nonexistent future, which is over for us or ending,” and “the present, the here and now, in these few moments of life left to us.”

Image result for Héctor Abad, The Farm,
Héctor Abad, The Farm, Trans. by Anne McLean, Archipelago, 2018.

Closely knit Colombian siblings' internal rifts threaten to tear apart the hard-won legacy their father fought to establish against guerilla and paramilitary violence. An intimate and transgressive novel that confirms Héctor Abad as one of the great writers of Latin American literature today.Pilar, Eva, and Antonio Ángel are the last heirs of La Oculta, a farm hidden in the mountains of Colombia. The land has survived several generations. It is the landscape of their happiest memories but it is also where they have had to face the siege of violence and terror, restlessness and flight.
The Farm, Héctor Abad illuminates the vicissitudes of a family and of a people, as well as of the voices of these three siblings, recounting their loves, fears, desires, and hopes, all against a dazzling backdrop. We enter their lives at the moment when they are about to lose the paradise on which they built their dreams and their reality.

Pensive novel, by noted Colombian writer Abad (Oblivion: A Memoir, 2012, etc.), of a rural family torn by conflict and incomprehension.
Pilar lives on La Oculta, her family’s farm in Antioquia, the mountainous Colombian province. She is, she declares, uninterested in the past: not her family’s, not that of the people who carved these farms out of the jungle, not that of the revolutionary movement that has torn the land in civil war. “That’s nothing to do with me,” she declares in a moment of anti–Marquez-ian repudiation. Still, as Abad’s novel opens, the past is laid out before Pilar, her sister, Eva, and her brother, Antonio, whom Eva summons with the bad news from Pilar that their mother has died. Antonio has long since left the countryside for New York, where he plays on the B team of the orchestra, gives violin lessons, and writes old-fashioned formal poems; his American lover, Jon, has formed a deep affection for La Oculta, and now the siblings struggle with what to do with it. Pilar wants to keep it, and so does Antonio, but something dark happened there, so much so that Eva wants nothing to do with her ancestral place. Abad slowly reveals what that is while differentiating the three, who share resemblances while being very different people who, deep into adulthood, have drifted very far apart. Abad studs his novel with sharply drawn aperçus: “Beauty is like a prison sentence: it opens all doors to you and then closes them,” says the ascetic Pilar, while Antonio, who professes to love each sister equally, muses on the many ways they have rebelled against the past: “It’s impossible to dictate rules that contradict human nature,” he resolves, even as Pilar invents new rules to chase away chaos and the world-weary Eva transgresses them—and even as La Oculta becomes a very different place from the one they knew.
A graceful story that takes its time to unfold, with much roiling under the surface of the narrative.
Kirkus Reviews
A history of Colombia in miniature, Abad’s arresting novel (after the memoir Oblivion) tells the story of La Oculta, a farm hidden in the mountains outside Medellín that has weathered guerilla and paramilitary violence but whose future is anything but secure. After the death of their mother, three siblings are reunited at La Oculta in order to determine its fate while reckoning with the personal differences that threaten to tear them apart. Toño, a gay violinist and amateur poet and historian, is summoned back to Colombia from New York and becomes obsessed with exploring the history of his family. He is met by his older sister, Pilar, a corpse dresser possessing an almost supernatural relationship with the dead who have drowned in the farm’s river, whose son Lucas was once kidnapped and held by guerillas for a year. Toño and Pilar’s sister, Eva, is traumatized by a past episode in which the farm was nearly burned to the ground by a criminal organization called El Músico. During their time on the farm, the siblings tidy up and discuss their heritage through the farm and their own personal experiences, while the threat of violence lurks in the background. Abad’s novel occasionally drags, but it’s a brilliant lesson in Colombian history, as it fluctuates between past, “nonexistent future, which is over for us or ending,” and “the present, the here and now, in these few moments of life left to us.” Publishers Weekly

In The Farm, Héctor Abad turns memory into “a cork in a whirlpool, circling around the same things all the time.” Set against the stunning landscape of Antioquia, the novel revolves between the lives of the three Angél siblings and their reflections on their family’s farm, La Oculta. To Antonio, the small farm is not only a paradise, but an artifact of his ancestors, whose history he has painstakingly researched and compiled. For Eva, the house is a dark reminder of her near deadly run-in with Colombia’s paramilitaries and their attempt to seize the land. And for Pilar, the eldest, La Oculta is “the resting place” where she will live out her days with her beloved Alberto, analyzing the lives of her siblings.
Translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean, Abad’s prose shines with the dreams of the Antioquian settlers who attempted to create a utopia for their descendants. But the novel also casts shadows—nightmares taking the form of guerrilla kidnappings, threats and massacres of the paramilitaries, and the ghosts of all who have drowned at La Oculta lake. The Angél siblings recount, assess, and cross-reference these events into a comprehensive portrait of their family, revealing how a land’s history can bind or divide our families, while always calling us to return home. - The Arkansas International

Building on his well-received memoir, “Oblivion,” about the murder of his father by paramilitaries, the Colombian writer Abad tells a family story in “The Farm,” a novel that deploys the tragic events of his country’s history as background. La Oculta is the farm of the title, a property in Colombia’s rural northwest that the Ángel family has inhabited since the mid-19th century. When Ana, the matriarch, dies, her three children must decide what to do with it: Eva, occupied almost exclusively with her love affairs, wants to sell the land; Pilar, the eldest sibling, wants to hang onto it, as does Antonio, a violinist living in New York with his husband.
The impulse to filter national history through a family story is not uncommon in Latin American fiction. “The Farm,” recounted by each sibling in alternating chapters, is pervaded by Colombian history, especially in the sections featuring Antonio, the family archivist; he explains the property’s origins, which date to the colonization of the territory south of the Cauca River at the end of the wars for independence. There, the 19th-century project of a Colombian Arcadia eventually collapsed under the strain of La Violencia (as the confrontation between liberals and conservatives was called) and the arrival of guerrillas, paramilitaries, drug trafficking, illegal mining and, finally, real-estate speculation.
Abad casts a moral gaze over these facts through his characters. Among them Pilar stands out for her delicate and memorable turns of phrase. Nevertheless, her narration, like that of her siblings, is weighed down by repetitions, long descriptions and digressions — on food, mainly — and a cloying sensibility that may alienate some readers. Patricio Pron, The New York Times Book Review

The eponymous farm at the heart of Héctor Abad’s new novel is tucked into a verdant corner of northwest Colombia. Known as La Oculta, it’s “a good hiding place,” says one character, “and its name itself means hidden: nobody arrives there who doesn’t know the way perfectly.” It’s been the Ángel family homestead for many years, but now, with the matriarch’s death, the farm’s future is in doubt. Should the Ángels sell or stay put? It’s a question with just two potential answers, but as debated by the three middle-aged siblings who stand to inherit the land, it’s a matter of great complexity.
The Farm is a sweeping, satisfying tale about the interplay of family life and national history. Pilar, the eldest surviving Ángel, raised her children amid the coffee plants and cattle pastures, and she doesn’t want to leave. Her sister, Eva, however, would happily part with La Oculta; she was nearly murdered there by paramilitaries who wanted the land for themselves. As for youngest sibling Antonio, he’s decamped to Manhattan, where he lives with his husband. Though still wounded by the homophobia he encountered during his teens, Antonio is nostalgic about his boyhood home. If the proposed sale is put to a vote, he’ll cast the deciding ballot. 
The novel’s three main characters share the narrative duties, and each is a memorable, distinct figure. Antonio, a professional violinist, spends his spare time studying Colombian history; the chapters told in his voice provide a wealth of detail about the settlers who populated the rough terrain outside Medellín as well as the political and drug-related violence of recent decades. Eva, bookish and independent, has divorced three times, but late in the book she embarks on what might be her first truly fulfilling relationship. Pilar, meanwhile, is an unreconstructed romantic, deeply in love with her home and willing to take deceptive measures to hold onto it.
Abad explored several similar themes in Oblivion, his effusively praised memoir about a family tragedy, which was published in the US in 2012. In a sense, he’s like some of the characters in The Farm, doubling back to a piece of land that he knows extremely well. With perceptive novels like this one, Abad is carving out an enviable niche in Colombia’s celebrated literary tradition. —Kevin Canfield, World Literature Today

Set in Colombia, The Farm by Héctor Abad is a lush story told in three alternating voices. Antonio, Eva and Pilar are siblings who have inherited La Oculta, the family farm, after the death of their mother. Their story documents how one family came to live and work at La Oculta, and Abad embellishes it with violence, intrigue, suspense, traditions and Colombian culture. Although Antonio lives in New York City with his husband, Jon, he returns to the farm several times a year and takes it upon himself to gather the family's genealogical history. Pilar is the most tradition-bound of the three, content to marry the first man she falls in love with and have many children. Meanwhile, Eva is the free spirit constantly searching for new adventures and relationships.
Abad beautifully intertwines these three distinct personalities against the backdrop of La Oculta and the people who work for the family. He is expert in his ability to describe the feelings the siblings have for one another, for their parents and friends. His descriptions of the land make the reader fall in love with the place, creating a sense of nostalgia for a fictional site filled with mountains, a lake, fruit trees and an old house stuffed with memories. When conflict arises among the siblings and La Oculta is threatened, readers viscerally share in the pain they experience as the story reaches its moving conclusion.  —  Lee E. Cart, Shelf Awareness

Héctor Abad’s The Farm is not the book it at first appears to be.A meditation on history and family in Colombia, The Farm recounts the story of the Ángel family from the perspectives of three of its members, Pilar, Eva, and Antonio, as they contemplate the past, present, and future of La Oculta, the remote family farm that serves as homestead and countryside retreat, dream and nightmare, for generations of their family.
But The Farm is also so much more.
Written from the perspective of the three siblings, each chapter reconstructs a particular and unique history of the town and region in Colombia where the farm is hidden, as well as that of the farm itself, and the family that built and is now struggling to maintain it. Each of their voices circles around the events that define the family, what Pilar calls “the things that have happened, the things that still happen on this farm. First those who’ve drowned in the lake (five, as far as I know)… Lucas getting kidnapped… The time when they came here to kill Eva. Deaths of previous Ángels.”
Considering the structure of the book, one wonders whether it is meant to provide a kaleidoscopic view of this world through our three narrators with La Oculta as their muse or if Abad’s real interest is in exploring something much deeper. Reading through the first chapters, I couldn’t help feeling that there was another story that Abad could have told about the Ángels, La Oculta, and Colombia if The Farm had been written with a different structure: from the perspective of an omniscient narrator, or from just one of these characters, each of whose voices could, on their own, have easily carried the whole novel. But the more I read, the more deeply and quite personally, I began to appreciate the characters for who they were, characters whose voices Abad so carefully prepared and translator, Anne McLean, clearly took great pains to preserve.
Pilar, the calm voice of tradition, is steadfast and faithful, practical and present. Antonio is the voice of history but is also the most physically distant from the farm and the family, and so also the most nostalgic. While Eva’s is the voice of personal and interpersonal struggle. She abides as burdened free spirit, constantly seeking escape from all that both Antonio and Pilar represent. These perspectives reveal themselves in their musings on La Oculta.
Antonio writes:
Giving up a farm like La Oculta is like giving up someone we once believed was the love of our lives. What was the farm? A small fulfilled promise of what America was said to be and mostly was not: a place where you can get a piece of land if you work hard. What was love? Something you were going to receive forever, if you always gave it; somewhere you went to sow, to reap, and to die. Pilar still trusted those dreams…
While Eva says:
I love and I hate the countryside. But maybe La Oculta might not be exactly the countryside, but rather something else. La Oculta is the deepest and most obscure part of our origin, the black, smelly, fertilizer that everyone in our family grew out of.
And Pilar:
They tell me I’m the most antiquated of the siblings, but let’s just see, deep down I’m the most modern, the one who doesn’t look to the past, like Toño, or to the non-existent future, which is over for us or ending, like Eva. I’m the one who lives in the present, here and now, in these few moments of life left to us, and its best to live them without crying, in a beautiful, bright, new house, in a house rebuilt with goodwill.
Does this approach help Abad tell his story about Colombia?  In his celebrated memoir, Oblivion, Abad depicts his Colombia as brimming with love and tainted by violence, and as a place for which he feels both nostalgia and despair. The reader may find that this very personal approach to telling the story of The Farm is indeed a powerful way to further explore these themes. Abad can explore History/history/myth, the passage of time (past/present/future), sexuality/love/marriage, ambition/need/desire, the interplay of individual/family/community, through the voices of each sibling whose unique explorations will move different readers in different ways. As the personal and family histories build and intertwine, each narrators’ words nourish and thrive off the others. Each of us will find something personal or familiar or profound to identify with in one of the three characters, an exercise I found most enjoyable as I considered and internalized the spirit of each one. It is essential that we hear and understand these competing narratives to understand the meaning of The Farm. — Catherine Belshaw, Asymptote Journal

"Mirrored so as to reflect one another, the glossy, dark, and quiet rings form and swirl out as if produced by a pebble thrown into the farm's deep nameless lake...Abad's skill in The Farm, and a reason he is one of Columbia's most magnetic writers, is the capacity to embody the pebble, positioning himself in the center of rippling circles in order to appreciate the force from every surrounding point." —Nathaniel Popkin, Rain Taxi Review

"Although the work is presented as a chorus of three voices, those of the siblings who narrate the events for us, this trio blends into one voice, that of the author, who becomes the ventriloquist for The Farm, the true protagonist...Héctor Abad Faciolince invites readers to discover what this book conceals or reveals in its chorus of three siblings’ voices as they alternate like soloists, speaking of the true protagonist of the story, a rural farm that could imprison or liberate, lock or unlock, depending on the lens through which it is viewed." —Dixon Acosta Medellín, El Espectador

The Farm around which Colombian writer Hector Abad’s substantial novel revolves is called La Oculta. Its name means hidden, or the hideaway, but, as the characters learn over the years, it is not remote or concealed enough to keep them from harm.
La Oculta lies in the Andes and looks, to the outside eye, like an idyll: richly fertile, with cattle, a lake and horses which the narrator, Antonio Angel, loves to ride. Antonio is a musician and teacher who lives in New York. His affection for the farm is profound and instinctual.
As he reflects of his husband Jon, “A person gets used to a body the way one gets used to a farm or a landscape”. Jon is his rib, but so too is La Oculta. Yet despite loving the first place he called home, he fled Colombia many years before and has since returned mainly to visit his mother. It is her unexpected death that prompts the tale to begin.
Antonio, like all his family, has mixed feelings for the place. These must now be assembled into a rational argument for him and his sisters Pilar and Eva either to keep La Oculta or to sell and leave it forever. He is inclined to keep it, and Pilar will consider no alternative. It is Eva who cannot sell fast enough. “Since she’d almost been murdered there,” her brother tells us, “she no longer trusted that land which we’d inherited as our own safe haven.”
What The Farm loses by title, it makes up in Abad’s singing style and confiding, conversational manner. One of Colombia’s most eminent novelists, rooted in the grim politics and social issues of his lifetime, his magical realist forebears now seem distant.
Yet the fiction he writes, in short stories as well as novels, is beguilingly sugared, its barbed wire core
appealingly coated in an upbeat, often droll tone.
Like the middle-aged characters in the novel, Abad’s relationship with his homeland is complicated, haunted by memories of extreme violence. In 1987 his father, who was a doctor and a human rights champion, was murdered by Colombian paramilitaries.
It took 20 years for Abad to write about that, in Oblivion (2006). Now, with this novel, he dives headlong again into that terrifying era, as witnessed by the Angel family.
Diving is the right image, because it is by throwing herself into the lake that Eva escaped the intruders who intended to kill her.
For two or three days after their bullets barely missed her, she had to find her way back to Medellin by her own wits, evading her pursuers while suffering brutal injuries from a fall. Thereafter it is years before she will go back to La Oculta.
Her attackers were part of the mafia mob working in league with the paramilitaries. They kept control of the region, the whirr of their chainsaws the prelude to unspeakable horrors.
The Angels are a target because they have refused to pay protection money and while they are not the wealthy family they once were, having sold the farm off piecemeal over the years, by comparison with their neighbours they are enviably well-off.
The Farm is told by the siblings in turn, although Antonio gets the lion’s share. The youngest, he is also the keeper of the Angel clan’s history, delving back to the mid-19th century when their forebears arrived on foot to stake a claim to a parcel of land in Antioquia and make their fortunes with back-breaking labour.
Since then, it has been the Angel family creed that their only hope of salvation and safety lies in the land. As The Farm unfolds, that certainty is severely tested.
The idealistic pioneer who led the original settlers started out with high hopes. It was his belief that all newcomers should start with roughly the same chance of success.
As he said, “there are not only injustices committed by men; there are also injustices of destiny, as a poet once said... but for now everyone is going to start, if not with exactly the same, then with something that is very similar: land.”
True to his fears, in little over a century’s time, what had begun as an egalitarian project had been distorted by all the human vices, greed, covetousness, sloth and deceit. And by random fate. By the 1980s, this region of Colombia was a snake pit, where silence was the wisest option, as was a metaphorical blindfold, if one wanted to survive.

Abad’s narrators encapsulate Colombia old and new. Pilar, the eldest, married at 17 and has remained happily with her husband all that time, never wishing to leave or have a career.
She is tradition incarnate, her existence revolving around family, and still in thrall to the church – though in reality paying lip-service only. In her fidelity to Colombia, and the farm, and the notion of everlasting union, the old country is kept alive.
Eva, by comparison, is flighty. Academically gifted and beautiful, she has been married thrice, and after her near-death experience at La Oculta, loathes it as she hated the worst of her husbands. Her fly-by-night temperament is in tune with the restlessness of politically aware and anxious modern times.
Antonio fits somewhere in between. Gay, but long-settled, nostalgic for his childhood home yet by now as much a New Yorker as a Colombian, he is the linchpin for the family, a bridge between the ill-matched sisters, and constantly reminding them of the early Angels who made the farm, and at what cost.
Gradually, the intertwined voices of the Angel brood take the reader back and forwards into the recent and distant past.
Through their eyes we see the ways of Colombian society, the minutiae of household politics, the obscenity of government corruption and the continuing fragility of the situation in a country where terror has sunk deep roots.
In Abad’s hands, it is a tale you don’t wish to end. He does not smooth the rough edges, nor sentimentalise his characters.
They are as emotionally calloused and inconsistent as you or I. The Farm is told with love of the memories the country holds, fury at those who ravaged it and sorrow at everything that has been lost. This richly evocative saga is so persuasively alluring, it suggests the greatest of these is love.
—Rosemary Goring, Herald Scotland 

“At the center of Abad’s sprawling novel is an archetypal scenario: three grown siblings wrestling with what to do when they inherit their family’s farm upon the death of their mother... The overall effect creates a fantastic sense of the place described, while also illuminating the way that gaps in knowledge can shape who we are today." —Tobias Carrol, Words Without Borders

When the Angel family's beloved home in the Antioquian wilderness falls into danger, they manage to defend it against the guerrillas and, later, the paramilitaries - but at a high price. After their parents' death, Pilar, Eva and Tono have to decide the fate of their father's legacy. While Pilar and Tono want to keep La Oculta, Eva, who experienced something terrible at the old farm house, is determined to sell. As the siblings each struggle with their own problems, their inner conflicts threaten to tear apart not only their home but also their family. The Farm is, first and foremost, a novel about the concept of home: how we identify home and how the idea of it means different things to different people. In this book three siblings, Pilar, Eva and Tono, take it in turns to narrate their stories of their family home. The farm itself, La Oculta, was hewn from pristine Colombian rock and forest some 150 years earlier by their ancestor and has experienced changing fortunes in a tumultuous country since then.
I liked how each sibling has a very distinct character and voice. Pilar is happily married to her childhood sweetheart and cannot imagine ever being without La Oculta as her home. Eva has been through a number of marriages and relationships and, for her, home is fleeting. Wherever she lives at that moment is home, but she could move elsewhere  next week and live just as happily. Tono has settled down and married his artist boyfriend in New York but returns regularly to La Oculta. For him, the history of the place is what defines it and he is happier delving into La Oculta's past than in dealing with it's present problems.
The Farm feels like an epic read in that it has a large scope of characters and time periods. I enjoyed discovering the old history through Tono's chapters and the recent history from Eva's. The Colombian landscape and Antioquian people are brought vividly to life and I appreciated seeing how the relatively remote township came to exist and then to thrive. At times, particularly earlier on in the book, The Farm felt a little repetitive. I thought this more the case when the characters were establishing themselves and we were sometimes told things about them more than once, but this turned out to be good grounding for later on. This novel explores home and family in a way that I found familiar even though I think this is only the second Colombian-authored novel I have read. The experience of generation gaps and differing expectations is illustrated through Tono's and Eva's American lives while Pilar is more rooted in the mountain community traditions. This is a lovely novel to immerse oneself in and I think would make a good Book Club choice as it raises deep issues to think over and discuss. - Stephanie Jane

"From Colombia, fifty years after the magic realism of One Hundred Years of Solitude, comes Hector Abad’s THE FARM, a superbly-written novel of equal magnitude, but entirely realistic. The government land turns out to be worthless, untamed wilderness that produces only snakes, jaguars and mosquitos. Abad’s brave, stubborn ancestors turn it into an empire. Meet the three siblings of the Angel family, who take turns telling the story: Pilar, who has only loved her husband Alberto her whole life; beautiful Eva, married three times, remembering the night she escaped being murdered by a band of paramilitary thugs, and Antonio, gay violinist living in New York with his black husband, researching the very history you are reading about their ancient family farm." — Nick DiMartino

Héctor Abad, Recipes for Sad Women, Trans. by Anne McLean, Pushkin Press, 2012.

No one knows the recipe for happiness—and yet Héctor Abad offers us a whole volume. His recipes, at times bizarre, at times wise, appear able to cure almost anything. With ingenuity and subtle humor, Abad proffers practical advice on how to eschew sadness, attract joy, and retain delight.

"I store up what I have read by Héctor Abad like spherical, polished, luminous little balls of bread, ready for when I have to walk through a vast forest in the night-time." - Manuel Rivas

Would you like a recipe that will, infallibly, prevent you from feeling guilt? Here it is: dinosaur meat. Of course you can't find dinosaur meat, that would be impossible. But you can, if you are lucky, find and eat a fillet of that living fossil, the coelacanth. Mammoth meat, we are told, also causes laughter.
Ah, South American whimsy. Or, if you prefer, magical realism. It has been so long out of favour that maybe it is coming back into style. But no (this book was first published in 1996, under the euphonious title Tratado de Culinaria Para Mujeres Tristes) – there's more going on here. For a start, this book isn't even pretending to be a novel. It's just 156 pages – in that delightful, squat, Pushkin house format, on good paper; the price tag is by no means an outrage – detailing brief ways of fending off, obviously, various kinds of tristesse.

This isn't, I think, just done for the fun of it, fun though it is. "We live in a sad, violent country," the author writes in the course of his mammoth "recipe"; and I think this is a legitimate response to having your beloved father shot by rightwing Colombian paramilitaries and being obliged in turn to flee the country. It may or may not be relevant to note here that his father's crimes included drawing attention to the level of malnutrition in the country. You see? Even the flightiest of fantasies can have deep, dark roots. (Abad's account of his father, Oblivion: a Memoir, is published by Old Street.)
Not that he makes too much of this. I suppose it is not something one wants to make too much of in a work like this: it is a book of supposed cures for sadness. The idea is that this is what the book itself should actually be doing. The deep sadness behind it, largely unseen, is the weight that gives this seemingly airy work ballast.
If there is a particular recurring theme in the book, it is sex, and love, both good and bad. How could this not be, when the root meaning of the word "carnal" comes from a word for "flesh"? Reminding us that women "belong to a sex that knows no exhaustion in pleasure … it's one of the greatest advantages females have over us weak males, exhausted with three cries". He warns us against sexual abstinence: "Oh, those who talk of the excesses of youth as the cause of their decadence. What idiots. Goethe did it until the end of his days and there've been few men as happy as he was."
The recipes can be no more than straightforward practical advice, delivered in a language that makes these things seem new again: "While you're not sure of the man who loves you, make sure he wraps up in latex." (I suspect that in the original the repetition of "sure" on either side of the comma was more noticeable. Still, at least the translator noticed it.)
It is this deadpan, abstracted tone, whether applied to coelacanth or sensible sexual precautions, that gives the book its own distinctive charm – in fact, you could say that many of the entries here are not so much recipes as charms, in the sense of spells. For instance, we have a "a recipe for dissolving the memory of a bad past love affair", which involves the dissolving with salt, and then burial in a handkerchief, of a slug. The rationale for this – there is always a rationale for this kind of thing, for this is the point of magic; the sublimation of properties, like metaphors made real, is the reason why spells are a kind of literature – is that to have loved someone and then gone horribly off them is "like loving a warrior in armour from which emerges, all of a sudden, the weak, slimy jelly of an abominable being".
This is a book that quietly knows what it is to be human, and to bridge, or reconcile, the gap between body and mind. On what to give to friends: "The pâté reminds friends that they are flesh. The bread won't let them forget that all is born of the Earth and returns to her. The spirit of the Sauternes wine revives what makes us most lively – the possibility of uniting two minds."
- Nicholas Lezard, Guardian

Image result for Héctor Abad Faciolince, Joy of Being Awake

Héctor Abad Faciolince, Joy of Being Awake, Brookline Books/Lumen Editions, 1996.

Saint or sinner? Moralist or scoundrel? Ascetic or voluptuary? The reader must draw his or her own conclusions as Don Gregorio Benjamin Gaspar de Medina, aging memoirist and protagonist, offers up for scrutiny the events of his checkered life and the substance of his diverse opinions. His narrative begins at the age of 15 at his family's Colombian countryside villa, when he simultaneously discovers that he is wealthy and that kisses are not shared only with the lips. Six decades later in Vienna, the story culminates with his marriage to the delectable Cunegonde Bonaventura, his erstwhile secretary and transcriber of his memoirs.
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Héctor Abad, Oblivion: A Memoir, Trans. by Anne McLean and Rosalind Harvey. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013.

Colombian author Abad (The Joy of Being Awake) dedicates this loving and sentimental memoir to his father, Héctor Abad Gómez, a professor and doctor devoted to his family, "moved to tears…by poetry and music," and committed to a better Colombia. The latter aspiration cost him his life when he was assassinated in 1987, and his son began writing this book five years later. Abad spends much of the book expressing his love for his father, but it is his discussion of Gómez's public health and human rights projects—such as founding "the Colombian Institute of Family Wellbeing, which built aqueducts and sewer systems in villages, rural districts, and cities"—that reveals what a remarkable educator, reformer, and activist the senior Abad was, and how his assassination (most likely ordered by Colombia's political leadership at the time) was a tragedy for a family and a nation. Those unfamiliar with Abad's and Gómez's writings will nevertheless find this timely memoir moving and informative. - Publishers Weekly