The Back of the Turtle

back of turtle

The Back of the Turtle

By Thomas King

Artists, the American poet Ezra Pound wrote, are the antennae of the race. I had just finished a passage in Thomas King’s The Back of the Turtle that describes an environmental catastrophe when, turning on the radio to listen to the news, I was eerily surprised to hear the first breaking reports about the tailings-pond spill at the Mount Polley mine in central B.C. If King is going to show this degree of prescience, I thought, he needs to be very careful what he writes about.

The Back of the Turtle, King’s much-anticipated new literary novel, echoes some of the themes King explored in his 2003 Massey Lecture series, The Truth About Stories. You may recall that King began each of his lectures with a story about the earth floating on the back of a turtle. Asked what the turtle stands on, the answer is that the turtle stands on the back of another turtle. Asked what the second turtle stands on, the eventual reply is that “it’s turtles all the way down.” That seems a whimsical way of describing the world’s foundation, but these are, after all, not physical turtles, but story turtles, and King’s ultimate point in his lectures is that “The truth about stories is that that’s all we are.” (Mind you, in the era of virtual reality, credit default swaps, and Bitcoin, “turtles all the way down” can seem as much warning as whimsy.)

So what would happen if all those turtles disappeared? That’s the question King explores in The Back of the Turtle, and the question cuts a number of ways. Environmentally, as negligence leads to an ecological disaster that wipes out all the turtles and most other life near the west coast community of Samaritan Bay, including the residents of the now-abandoned Smoke River reserve. Economically, as King shifts his setting to corporate Toronto to explore how skewed conceptions of what the bottom line really is lead to tragic consequences. Ethically, as Gabriel Quinn, a research scientist gone AWOL, returns to the town he helped to destroy for the purpose of destroying himself.

And, finally, spiritually. One of the recurring pleasures of King’s works is his gift for interweaving oral tradition and modern narrative, and a motif woven throughout his novel is the creation story of the woman who fell from the sky. After accidentally digging a hole in the sky, the woman tumbles through space until she falls onto a watery earth, landing on the back of a turtle. There she, the animals she encounters, and her twin sons work together to create the world. Historian of religion Mircea Eliade wrote that creation stories are not accounts of how the world was once created but are in fact descriptions of how it is re-created every moment. But the avaricious contemporary world of King’s novel has emptied itself of both turtles and stories. Lacking those foundations, it’s no surprise that creation begins to unravel.

As in his other work, King here handles things with a characteristically deft touch, a wry sensibility that unfolds these issues through characters that intrigue and affect us: Nicholas Crisp, a salty, Pan-like resident of Samaritan Bay who speaks in an archaic dialect and can’t resist a nautical turn of phrase; Mara, an artist determined to face old ghosts and re-establish her life on the reserve; and Sonny, a reclusive boy whose attention is divided between obsessive hammering, combing the beach for salvage, and building a beacon to call life back to Samaritan Bay (and whose Daddy issues definitely take a capital D).

Even Dorian Asher, the CEO of Domidion, a biotechnology and resource extraction company responsible for multiple environmental crises, is on the one hand a repellant personification of corporate malfeasance and on the other, with his worries about his marriage, his obsession with style and fashion, and his pathetic inability to choose between two thousand-dollar watches, a complex, perhaps even bizarrely amiable embodiment of Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil. But unlike Eichmann, who was embedded in the Nazi system, Dorian is embedded in western consumerism. Like Arendt, King is suggesting that the roots of evil are complex and that evil-doers are perhaps not so different from us as we would wish. The implication is that, faced with environmental catastrophe, what is needed is not merely an easy demonization of someone else but a broad survey of the shared landscape and a penetrating, if discomfiting, look in the mirror.

The Back of the Turtle explores questions of recovery, both environmental and personal, and shows the two to be intrinsically linked to each other and to story-telling. Gabriel and Mara struggle to weave their broken histories into coherent stories they can tell themselves and others, and then to relate their stories to larger narratives that will provide a foundation for rebuilding the world. Like most oral tales, King’s is, to quote Native American scholar and writer Louis Owens, both the telling of a story and the story of a telling.

In The Back of the Turtle an abandoned, rusty barge freighted with deadly cargo drifts randomly through the oceans and the story. Like an ecological Flying Dutchman, it eludes capture and is a constant, foreboding presence. Science fiction writer Philip K. Dick once defined reality as “that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” Fatigued or overwhelmed, we may shut our eyes to the future environmental consequences of our actions, but still they drift out there in the fog, ready to grind up inescapably on the shoals when we least expect it. And when we try to dodge awareness of our actions’ consequences, we also lose the past in which we acted, finding ourselves stranded in an ungrounded present. In Thomas King’s novel, only those characters who stare the past full in the face and bravely tell or sing their stories can hope to re-create the world, for stories, though they are made of air, are the turtles on which the world stands.

- Bruce Dadey

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Data Mining the Digital Reader

readovershoulder

There’s no reason that data miners, those intrepid digital demographers, should leave readers in peace when they already burrow into every nuance of our social networking, net browsing, and game playing. Neil Postman once remarked, comparing Orwell’s dystopia with Huxley’s, that it was Huxley who got it right: in western societies in any case, social control takes place not through oppression, but through happiness. Orwell imagined that the government would have to install cameras in every crevice in order to gather intelligence; Huxley knew that, properly conditioned—and in order to be better served—we’d happily, even eagerly, reveal our every secret. So did last summer’s Wall Street Journal article on e-readers and data mining make any difference in the explosive growth of e-reading? Likely not any more than NPR’s 2010 article on the same subject did, though it may have given a few buyers and owners pause.

Briefly, e-readers and e-reading programs collect and transmit data on their users’ reading habits and transmit them back to the mothercorp (Amazon, Google, Barnes and Noble, Apple): what books you’ve purchased, whether you’ve finished a book and where you abandoned it, how long it took you to read it, whether you skimmed or skipped certain passages, what lines you’ve highlighted or noted. Alone in your La-Z-Boy with your paperback, nobody knows if, unable to delay gratification, you’re skimming that long artsy description of an apartment’s decor to get to the hot scene between protagonist and significant other. Not only will e-book companies know that you’ve skimmed, but they’ll sell that data to publishers so that they can tell their authors to cut it out with the description already and cut to the chase. Apparently many authors, eager to give you just what you want, are overjoyed to have access to these demographics, but in the rare case the author objects, editors will at last be able to counter the vagaries of artistic ambition with cold, hard data. In fact, if stats show that a particular book lags in certain passages, it’s easy to quickly pump out a revised digital edition that better meets readers’ needs, and if readers’ needs change again, well, digital texts are written on water. It could be that in the not-too-distant future, readers will be the writers, and every text we read will be a mirror in which we see our own image. O brave new world!

- Bruce

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The Pleasure of the Bedtime Book

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I was shocked a while ago to hear literary and cultural critic Stanley Fish say in a radio interview that he no longer reads poetry, except professionally. When I worked in the academy I loved reading for a living, but I didn’t want to lose my amateur enthusiasm for the printed word. In a busy life, my slim bulwark against that huge loss has always been a quarter-hour each night of plumping up a pillow and enjoying by a dim night light my bedtime book.

I expect that criteria for a good bedtime read vary from person to person, and that some people don’t distinguish at all between bedtime and daytime reading. For me, however, my bedtime book is cracked open only in the minutes before sleep, and the books that have kept reading for reading’s sake alive have had a pretty defined set of requirements. They have to be outside of my areas of professional interest (mostly rhetoric and American lit) so that my motivations for reading are pure and my critical faculties don’t perk up too much. They have to be interesting enough to keep me engaged at the end of a long day but soothing enough to settle me in for a good night’s sleep. And I need to be able to nibble away at them in fifteen-minute chunks without feeling like I’m always forgetting what I read yesterday or breaking things off just as they are getting interesting.

Ironically, the books that ended up satisfying these criteria have been the very books I would have tackled anyway to be a broadly-read academic: the classics. You’d think that short books would best lend themselves to short reading spurts, but longer works predominated. Over the years, in fifteen-minute chunks, I have read, among other books, David Copperfield, War and Peace, Montaigne’s Essays, Middlemarch, Don Quixote, and Anna Karenina. Consuming these books fifteen minutes at a time meant that their reading stretched out over a long span of time, sometimes exceeding a year. The ritualistic regularity of my reading time also meant that the books became integrated into my life in a way that other books did not—my day was divided into waking, sleep, and an in-between state that was sometimes infused with Cervantes, sometimes Tolstoy, sometimes Dickens or Eliot.

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I know, I know. This sounds like rich fare to sleep on. “And why not wolf down some chocolate mousse or duck paté just before you turn back the sheets while you’re at it?” some may say. But somehow reading these books at the same period of the day that my parents would read fairy tales to me as a child makes them pleasure and not work. Franz Kafka wrote that literature should be an axe to break the frozen sea within us, and the crack of axe on ice shouldn’t be an easy sound to fall asleep to. Yet there is something soothing about reading literature in particular at the end of a harried day, even if the adventures within the books are far from soothing for the books’ characters. No matter what vicissitudes my day, or the world’s day, presents, it is comforting to know that the world contained (and contains) minds that can produce such works—that I am joining a silent audience of readers who have enjoyed the books long before me, and that after I’ve turned the last page these books will always be waiting patiently for whoever else might be fortunate enough to discover them. And so, after dreaming that shared dream, I slip off peacefully into my own.

- Bruce

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The Universe Within

lots of stars in outer space with blue nebula clouds

Perhaps the thickest wall between contemporary popular science writers and their audience is the essentially unimaginable nature of modern physics. A century ago, a physics teacher could use pool tables, wheelbarrows, and spinning buckets to illustrate the forces underlying the universe. And for most of what happens in life, those examples still suffice. But anybody seeking to explain or understand the universe in contemporary terms is going to have to toss all those comfortingly concrete objects in the trash. And what examples could a contemporary writer use to illustrate the fact that space itself curves, that there is a universal equation whose result is the Greek letter psi, which represents “every possible state of the world,” or that the cosmos might consist of one-dimensional string-like universes moving within a ten-dimensional space? The untrained mind reaches out, vainly trying to lay its archaic map of the universe over this alien landscape, and slumps back, befuddled and defeated, thinking only “here be dragons.”

The 1970s saw a raft of best-selling books popularizing the “new” physics, which had already been around for a generation. Books like The Dancing Wu-Li Masters and the Tao of Physics (both of which I read and loved) related science to Eastern spiritualism, generating huge sales numbers that were in direct proportion to the wince-rate of the physicists who read them (the sleeper film What the Bleep Do We Know? continues this tradition). Physicists like Steven Weinberg and Stephen Hawking wrote back, attempting to bridge the gap between scientists and the public without stretching the science, and Neil Turok’s The Universe Within: From Quantum to Cosmos, a book based on Turok’s 2012 Massey Lecture series, continues in this noble tradition. And as the Director of Waterloo’s Perimeter Institute, a former chair of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge, and a colleague of Stephen Hawking, Turok has the chops to accurately capture the world of modern physics.

But here’s the thing. If you read fantasy literature, you’ll know that the motif of the one “true” language—the language that includes the real names for everything and allows one to know and control the relationships between all things—is ubiquitous. In a sense this language does exist, but unlike the pidgin-Latin of Harry Potter or the ancient language in Eragon, it requires more than just knowing words, and it’s devilishly intimidating for the lay-person. The language is mathematics, and without math, there’s no way to really grasp the bizarre world of quantum physics. What Turok does, though, is open the door for us a crack so that we understand enough to feel a sense of wonder about just how strange the atomic and cosmic foundations of our everyday world are, and how remarkable it is that there are minds subtle and large enough to grasp them.

Turok, like Moses or George Mallory, climbs with you for awhile and then pulls ahead into the misty heights above. Fortunately, like Moses (and unlike Mallory), Turok comes down from the mountain with the tablets from on high, etched in a language we can understand, even if we don’t get to see things face-to-face. And along with his presentations of the perplexing constructions of modern physics, he also gives us an often moving picture of the people who struggled, sometimes against considerable adversity, to advance the field, from historical figures like Maxwell and Faraday, to neglected scientists like Emmy Noether (who worked without pay as a professor at Gottingen University because she was a woman), to the adventurous African students who travel to attend the African Institute for Mathematical Science that Turok co-founded in a derelict hotel in South Africa with the goal of making “the next Einstein an African.” We also get snippets of Turok’s own background as well, so the oddities of relativistic and quantum physics are presented within a personal context. For the lay reader, it’s this human element that grounds the more esoteric ideas in the book and makes them less alienating. It certainly helps that Turok is an infallibly cheerful and accommodating travelling companion.

The Universe Within offers a glimpse into the mysteries of the cosmos that might just inspire you to follow up Turok’s recommended reading list or pore through the hilarious and addictive minutephysics videos produced by his student, Henry Reich (Got only one minute to learn what a Higgs Boson is? No problem!). In five lectures, Neil Turok can only plant a seed, but the more we know, the more we want to know, and so his book might just be the beginning of a mind-expanding journey.

- Bruce

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The Inconvenient Indian

inconvenientindian

The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People In North America
Thomas King

Drama and math usually don’t have much to do with each other. But there is one formula most people connected with drama know, and it goes like this:

comedy = tragedy + distance

This formula describes our well-established proclivity to find the suffering of others funny, provided it’s presented to us in a way that removes us from the people or the pain involved. A million ten-ton Acme weights falling on a million hapless Coyotes testify to the success and ubiquity of this formula, even if they don’t necessarily rub out its ethical shadiness.

Thomas King, an author, broadcaster, professor, actor, director, and Massey Lecturer who is justifiably known for his humour and wit, is no doubt familiar with this law of human nature. But, when he doesn’t make himself the butt of his own jokes, as he so often does in CBC’s Dead Dog Café Comedy Hour, he tends to work the formula from a different angle, and it goes something like this:

comedy – distance = tragedy

That is, comedy and wit can induce us to move closer to issues we might not otherwise want to look at, and in his latest book, The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America, King plays a sly, ironic, and sometimes biting Virgil to the reader’s Dante as he conducts us on a tour of how Native people have been depicted in history, film, literature, and the media. As reviews in the Star and the Globe have pointed out, there’s much to admire in King’s book: It covers a broad swath of history from Columbus to Caledonia in an engaging way that gives the reader an authoritative overview of issues and events. It incisively dissects historical efforts to erase Native people through war or education and illuminates present attempts to erase them through law or policy. It displays impressive rhetorical acumen as King argues for and against various positions on the past and present status of Aboriginal people.

But most of all, King is a master storyteller, and The Inconvenient Indian is a masterfully-told story. In his popular Massey Lecture collection The Truth About Stories, King said, “The truth about stories is that that’s all we are,” and if stories are central to how we construe ourselves, they are even more powerful determinants in how we perceive others. King’s examination of the narratives that have defined Native people for non-Native cultures isn’t written from on high. Rather, King gives to us the story of his own encounters with these stories in a humorous, personal, and humane way that never obscures the bitter injustices that accompanied and still accompany them. In many waysThe Inconvenient Indian is an account of King’s own journey, and an invitation to walk alongside him as he takes it. You’ll rarely encounter a better travelling companion.

- Bruce

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Clucking Our Tongues and Licking Our Lips

katnissbarbie katniss

YA author Kenneth Oppel wrote an interesting piece in the Globe shortly after the release of the first Hunger Games movie in which he criticized The Hunger Games for appealing to its audience’s baser instincts. The Globe comments section, as usual, expanded my mind vastly by demonstrating that there were more ways to miss a point than I possibly could have imagined: “Can’t you see it’s a critique?” “Psst…it’s fiction,” “You’re just jealous,” etc. I’m pretty sure Oppel knows Hunger Games is a critique of our current realmedia obsession and that he realizes it’s fiction. I think his point, though, is that the audience watching the film is no less entertained by the games than is the fictional audience in the film (something that is, perhaps, less possible with Battle Royale, the rawer Japanese precursor to Hunger Games). The difference is that the audience within the film openly acknowledges that it enjoys watching teens fight to the death, whereas the audience walking out of the theatre gets to cluck its tongue and think itself morally superior.

And after the audience leaves the theatre, they can demonstrate how the film’s social critique has transformed them by buying Hunger Games gear, including Katniss and Peeta pen and pencil sets, Hunger Games “movie socks” with mockingjays on them, “Capital Colors” nail polish from China Glaze (Show which district you’re aligned with—what’s your “hunger colour”?). And yes, inevitably, Katniss Barbie. How lucky we are to live in our world and not Katniss’s: we have better morals AND better merch! Sure, the games are fictional, but given that the trademarked slogan of our modern gladiatorial games, the Ultimate Fighting Championships, is “As Real As It Gets”—precisely intended to reassure us that the spilled blood in the ring is the real deal—might it be that there are spinoff opportunities yet to be explored?

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- Bruce

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Bent Reflections

warpedmirror

Last August publisher Thomas Nelson pulled David Barton’s The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson because a number of Jefferson scholars pointed out that the book was inaccurate. Jefferson, one of the many U.S. founding fathers who was a deist rather than a committed church-goer, is a splinter in the craw of evangelical Americans who claim that America was conceived as a Christian nation, and Barton’s book is part of a concerted campaign to re-cast Jefferson as not only sympathetic to Christianity but a committed evangelical. Thomas Nelson found—much later than they should have—that the facts got in the way of the book’s argument, but that didn’t prevent Barton’s work from doing very well while it was on the market. Now that the rights have been returned to Barton, no doubt it will soon be for sale again, this time with a marketing blurb that says something along the lines of “The facts mainstream publishers tried to suppress!”

When I taught rhetoric courses, I used to do an exercise with my students, asking how many of them had actually met Stephen Harper, how many had been to China or Afghanistan, how many had actually witnessed the lunar landing, and so forth through a series of commonplace facts, events, and people that “everybody” knows. Of course, though the commonplaces were central parts of everybody’s knowledge, nobody in the class had firsthand experience of any of them. The upshot of the exercise was that of the vast mental picture of the universe each of us constructs, only a tiny sliver actually comes from personal experience. In the information-saturated global village, almost everything we think we know comes from the texts and media around us, and that makes everybody vulnerable, especially now that most of our information sources are concentrated in the hands of a few corporate owners or, increasingly, conveyed through unverifiable digital files that are changeable with a click of a button (See, for example, the infamous shift in the New York Times’s online coverage of how Occupy protesters were arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge).

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For Renaissance thinkers, the imagination was a kind of mirror that reflected an image of the external world to the rational mind. If the imagination was warped, the decisions of the will would be unsound even if they followed reason, because they were based on false images: GIGO (Garbage In, Garbage Out). Our media are our mirrors, and there’s no doubt that various interested parties are struggling to shape those mirrors to their particular ends. Of course, within the narrow bounds of our own personal worlds, our views even of first-hand experiences are subject to our own predispositions and biases. But if we’re fortunate life grinds away at the distorting bumps and pits in the mirror of our imagination, polishing it so that it offers a more accurate reflection. But as the personal is crowded out by the vicarious, that corrective is becoming harder to find.

faculties

- Bruce

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