Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Jon Paul Fiorentino's stripmalling

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There is a false debate surrounding Jon Paul Fiorentino's novella, stripmalling (ECW 2009), and its cultural status as hipster fiction. In the words of Toronto Star's Geoff Pevere, "Sometimes the line between hipster irony and boringly bad is too narrow to discern." Let us leave the editorializing to the editorialists -- but Pevere has his pop culture signals mixed. Fiorentino may himself be a hipster, and hipsters may indeed be boring, but the Jonny-go-nowhere in the book is a beast of a different bong. This isn't hipster; it's slacker fiction. This means the nature of the irony is different, as a result.

It follows that Pevere's cultural comparisons are off too: he suggests parallels to Saturday Night Live, SCTV, The Simpsons, Family Guy, The Late Show with David Letterman, and Late Night with Conan O'Brien. He should have cited Dude, Where's My Car?, Strange Brew, and Tommy Chong. The novella's Jonny is no Mark "Hard Harry" Hunter -- he's a Winnipeg suburban Jeff Spicoli. Substitute the accent surfer for Shell station, the battle with authority Mr. Hand for Mr. Stubler, and the smoked-out van for a smoked-out Chevette in which both main characters primarily dwell. Keep the dope, the interchangeable service jobs held by restless kids, and a distracted narrative that bounces oddly between gags.

On the other hand, rather than Fast Times, the central plot 'event' (if it can be called that) -- the threat of the destruction of the stripmall for a giant "Hypermart" run by nameless stereotypical suits -- is right out of Porky's or Animal House. Ahh, diversity worth saving.

Though the humour be framed by the 1980s, Fiorentino's take on the same conventions works because he keeps the humour light. Just as in the last scenes of so many 80s teen flicks the values of the dominant culture are re-established and embraced -- surprise, we've grown up through our bad behaviour! -- in stripmalling, the big world runs slipshod over any point of rebellion. This has the effect (as in the movies) of making any criticism of "the system" moot. The Hypermart comes into town crushing the "local" culture; aha! a trace of antiglobalization! However, the threat of unionization by the store workers sends the multinational packing, leaving -- like Stelco in Hamilton -- that very dispiriting suburban trace of purposeless destruction. When everybody loses, for some reason the politics just fade.

JPF knows all of what he's doing in these plot moves, and makes sure to remind everybody that he wants us to know that he knows. At its best, this leads to a tongue-in-cheek, soft absurdist humour wrapped around well-rendered foibles. It's not a grand prediction, but I, being no prophet, predict that this book will get nominated for the Stephen Leacock Award; a prize appropriately named after another Montreal-based writer who focused on small towns in provinces west. The metaconscious self-flaggelations by the author are rather light, and oddly dated (perhaps he's using old postmodern tricks as a reflection of the period? now that would be clever), but they, and all the characters, and even the setting dissolve into an empty nostalgia that shapes this narrative universe. As in Sunshine Sketches before it, this kind of elegy for a lost moment is a rich source for ironic humour.

Empty nostalgia? Think of Douglas Coupland who evokes the desire for a nostalgia (Latin for "severe homesickness) while undermining the possibility of ever returning to home. Moreover, "home" is realized to have been a false illusion so there's no point in going back. The desire is the only thing left that might be real. Cue Charlton Heston screaming on a beach before a cracked Statue of Liberty in a land ruled by Yahoo!, I mean, Yahoos, I mean apes.

It wouldn't be unfair to think of stripmalling as a simplified Douglas Coupland book -- and certainly all the markers are there: from allusions to forgotten artifacts to the particular vocabulary of microcultures. But Coupland's characters are smarter and more imaginative: they create realities by which to evade or elude (or denude) other bigger realities that threaten to interfere. Fiorentino's characters are small, entirely shaped by the dictums of the world they inhabit, lazy and passive. Slackers! There is no escape, except through drugs, and their outsiderness reflect only an awkward transition of kids coming to terms with their inevitable compromise. They inhabit no other world but the stripmall. Even their forays into other places like St. Petersburg are shaped by strip-mall culture references.

Evan Munday's work in the book is a real highlight. In a previous post I linked to an interview with him in the National Post. Hopefully we'll be seeing more of his work.

At this point, I suppose I ought to return and add my dime-bag to the pile and try to clear up the distinction between slacker and hipster. But given that it's the internet age, instead, here's a useful discussion about the term and the idea of hipsters (h/t jpf). Despite the article, though, I know the names of a dozen people who are actually pretty confident in their identity as hipsters. They are having fun, or at least doing well keeping up the illusion. For what it's worth, I think of hipsters as the equivalent of "preps" a generation ago -- just kids who try to fit in with a contemporary fashion that privileges a disaffected (rather than engaged) pose. Stoners, in contrast, use the cigarette lighter in their car to smoke the spilt hash they find in the cracks of their seats. Stoners always forget all the lyrics to their favourite Bob Dylan songs, except the sing-along chorus, and, consequently, get blown away every time by his poetic genius. "Dude, the dude carries on his shoulder a Siamese cat. It's not a size-eight hat! I totally thought it was a hat."

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Gregory Betts

Gregory Betts is an experimental poet, editor, essayist and teacher. He is the author of If Language (BookThug, 2005), Haikube (BookThug, 2006) and The Others Raisd in Me (Pedlar Press, 2009). He has edited editions of poetry by W.W. E. Ross, Raymond Knister and Lawren Harris. His latest book is The Wrong World: Selected Stories and Essays of Bertram Brooker (University of Ottawa Press 2009).

Go to Gregory Betts’s Author Page