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Poignant Assholes

A recommended reading list by the author of the new book End Times.

Book Cover End Times

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As I finished the stories in End Times, I realized that many of my characters are people with whom I would not particularly want to be friends. Whether the character is a hipster megachurch pastor or a jet-setting management consultant at Davos—or a fundamentalist housewife, an aging Czech atheist, or a nurse who believes in faith healing—the characters in End Times are very sure they are right. 

Why was I drawn to these people in my writing? Was I a misanthrope malgré moi? Part of the reason is that I’m curious about people I don’t readily like. But just as importantly, maybe more importantly, my characters refract the influences of stories that I have read and loved. Literature opens up a space to be curious about all kinds of people, including assholes, who become not simply intriguing but also moving, even (or maybe especially) when I cannot agree with them.


Book Cover All That man Is

All That Man Is, by David Szalay

A veritable buffet of assholes, tracking varieties of white European masculinity from characters in their teens until their seventies. Not all characters qualify, but there are plenty who do, from moody youths to oglers to climate-change deniers to benumbed success stories. Many are captured by the opening story’s description of the garden statues at the Palace of Sanssouci, of “men molesting women, or fighting each other, or frowning nobly at something far away, each frozen in some posture of obscure frenzy, frozen among quiet hedges…” What Szalay’s stories convey so vividly is how unhappy assholes often are. There is a pathos to each, as they struggle against loneliness. Reading about them, I veered from feeling appalled to tender and back (and forth!) again.


Book Cover Who Do You Think You Are

Who Do You Think You Are? by Alice Munro

An obvious choice for Canadian fiction, but one must give credit where credit is due. Munro is the GOAT of literary short fiction, the writer whose pen launched a thousand other writers (at least, if we’re not only counting published writers). As a teenager I gulped down her stories, not knowing why I was drawn to them; when I revisited them in my thirties, I was struck by the casual brutalities recounted in many stories, not only the ones set in a poor part of town during the Depression, but also the stories set in university and affluent suburbs. Munro’s protagonist, Rose, first learns to become an asshole by trying to please her stepmother Flo with gossipy stories; later in university Rose will torment her already-tormented boyfriend, in an effort to shake up his sentimental notions of her. Part of Munro’s genius is the huge curiosity with which she recounts these and other episodes, a curiosity which begets not judgment but amazement and (eek, sometimes!) self-recognition. In Munro’s stories, sometimes you’re an asshole when you are exploring, trying out a new behavior or role and not really grasping the implications of what you’re doing; and sometimes when you’re trying to resist a stifling status quo. One further, unsettling implication: sometimes being an asshole is pretty fun.


Book Cover Middlemarch

Middlemarch, by George Eliot (Spoiler alert)

Eliot grew up evangelical and left the faith in adulthood, translating a book of theological scholarship that one incensed Earl famously called “the most pestilential book ever committed out of the jaws of hell.” Her depiction of the evangelical hypocrite, Nicolas Bulstrode, makes evident his guilt in having effectively stolen a portion of his first wife’s inheritance. Bulstrode lives his life with excruciating sobriety; in some moments he reads like an early devotee of the prosperity gospel, minus the exuberance.

Eliot is equal opportunity, however, and the scholarly Casaubon comes up for even closer scrutiny, arguably proving to be the greater asshole when he tries to control his young wife’s existence from beyond the grave. Casaubon’s will prohibits Dorothea from marrying the man who offers solace early in her unhappy marriage, a man she will come to love.

What is striking about Eliot’s assholes is how scared they are. Scared of social opprobrium, scared of humiliation. If Middlemarch has a lesson on the subject of assholery, it is to beware the fear of humiliation that can turn us into assholes.

But there is nothing heavy-handed about the novel. A fun activity is to read it aloud with a friend or family member, especially any scene with the uncle, Mr. Brooke. One truth that hasn’t been universally acknowledged by critics: Middlemarch is a laff riot.

To learn more about it check out "How Middlemarch helps us confront reality, 150 years on."


Book Cover How to Pronounce Knife

How to Pronounce Knife, by Souvankham Thammavongsa

A bracing critique of the topos of the nice Canadian, in the figures of occasional assholes. A sister who owns a nail salon dresses down her newly-employed brother by calling his work “a stinking blob of disgusting shit!” The assholery is rhetorical, an effort to wake up her brother, who faces challenges in a country full of nice obtuse people whose lives are relatively easier. Thammavongsa’s stories are attuned to class difference, and motivating some of the abrasive language is a terrified love. There is also a vitality to the outbursts, screams which announce an individual’s refusal to crumple into despair. 


Book Cover This Cake is for the Party

This Cake Is for the Party, by Sarah Selecky

Ok this one is a stretch, but the fact is that upon returning to Canada in 2013 I encountered Selecky’s stories and they stayed with me long after I’d finished reading. Her characters are by turns worried and wistful, trying to make life work but kind of lost. In these stories, assholery flashes out in occasional bouts of passive-aggressive behaviour. One character expresses concern with harsh condescension, while another stews, convinced of his own reasonableness compared with his partner and her alcoholic friend, until he cannot bear it anymore and must secretly betray them both. The assholery in these stories is of a distinctly white Canadian variety, deeply conflict avoidant, the culmination of trying to be nice and reasonable until you can’t bear it anymore and must behave otherwise.


Book Cvoer The Selected Stories of Mavis Gallant

The Collected Stories of Mavis Gallant, by Mavis Gallant

Feckless parents pop up periodically in Gallant’s stories, people too absorbed either by money and social schemes or by general vanity to take much notice of their children. (Most are Anglophone, interestingly; Francophone parents come off much better on the whole.)

What Gallant’s stories reveal so wrenchingly is the asshole’s obliviousness to the consequences of their actions. A long-suffering son visits his dying father and waits to hear him apologize for abandoning the family. Instead, he listens to his father express outrage at another father who abandoned five children. The son reflects that his father “had just simply forgotten that he’d left his own,” an insight that reveals the total cluelessness of the asshole, an assholery which seems fated, as if beyond his control. These are some of the most damaging assholes, leaving a trail of resentful or weary adult children.


Book Cover Transit

Transit, by Rachel Cusk

After Cusk’s memoirs on motherhood and divorce were judged harshly by critics—with the implication that she was the asshole—Cusk reinvented the novel with a protagonist who disappears by telling other people’s stories. Yet Cusk’s Faye remains insistently present via the sensibility that saturates the prose; in a way, she is more present through her acts of observation than if the novel were all about her. Faye is perceptive and detached, as one expects a writer to be, but in Transit she’s also insensitive about class and how much it sucks to be poor and old. The elderly basement-dwelling couple who must put up with Faye’s renovations behave towards her in ugly ways, yet Faye is strangely incurious about them and the noise they must endure in their presumably low-ceilinged apartment.

That said, it feels like a stretch to call Faye an outright asshole. She is circumspect, and the contemporary asshole usually requires a degree of spontaneity. However, asshole-esque energies remain in play throughout the novel. The brief first chapter, a kind of prologue, signals a thematic preoccupation with cruelty and how it has gained license in a secular age when humans are no longer participants in some cosmic existential drama. In Cusk’s novel, assholery plays out as aggression in London’s absurdly overheated real-estate market and in romantic relationships, where the decline of marriage enables one to leave a live-in partner “without much ceremony or explanation.” Faye is implicated by both forms of, let’s call it, structural assholery.

Transit is a work that rivets me from the first page, and I can only hope that it has influenced my writing. If nothing else, read the brief first chapter, which is like the opening of Dante’s Inferno updated for today’s Anglophone bourgeoisie. It’s only nine pages and can be found online. Just go read it. Read it now. Go.


Book Cover End Times

Learn more about End Times:

An exquisitely written collection of stories about evangelical culture, ideological polarization, and the mysteries and messiness of humanity.

In seven stories, End Times explores the lives of people variously entangled with evangelical culture, excavating their hidden anxieties and longings.

A Vancouver mother convinces her opioid-addicted son to attend church, and sparks her own personal emergency. A jet-setting consultant tries to help a rural fundamentalist teen, while her own secular life unravels in Toronto, Davos, and beyond. An atheist doctor attempts to expose a hipster megachurch pastor as a closeted hypocrite. Michelle Syba's characters are richly realized, often surprising themselves along the way.

During a time when crises abound and the end feels near, End Times invites us to reimagine the complex, utterly human lives of both believers and nonbelievers. This exceptional collection takes us into the hidden heart of the human.

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