Sep 9, 2008

Entitlement by Jonathan Bennett - review

by Jonathan Bennett
ECW Press, 2008

As its citizens pull out of single-car driveways and head to unionized jobs, as they eat a fast-food breakfast on their lap while cleverly steering with one knee, as they go about thriving on gargantuan coffees and last night’s hockey win, our influence does not register.
from Entitlement
What is it about The Great Gatsby, anyway, that makes it so great? Sure, it’s spectacularly well-written, with a simple eye for the poetic and an ear for nuanced dialogue. It’s a good story, rife with classic themes of love, betrayal, greed, and simple human compassion. But there’s myriad of novels with the same themes, the same quality. What makes Gatsby stand out among its numerous peers?

I believe it’s in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s choice of narrator. Gatsby and Daisy are rich characters, but it takes a special kind of talent to write from the perspective of someone who has everything and make them at all relatable. No, Fitzgerald’s coup was adding an outsider to the mix in the form of Nick Carraway, the man who yearns to be one of the elite, yet has too much of the real world in him to ever fully join the top one percenters. Nick’s distance allows us empathy, and a greater understanding of Gatsby’s foibles and Daisy’s charms. Without him, the novel would likely appears as the rich simply being rich. This may belittle Fitzgerald’s talent, which I would never seek to do, but it’s a tricky proposition otherwise. Hemingway pulled it off in
The Sun Also Rises, but oftentimes the wealthy are better served in art as objects to appreciate from afar.

Jonathan Bennett understands this dilemma, and there are true echoes of
Gatsby’s themes throughout the pages of his novel Entitlement. The abundantly wealthy elite of Gatsby is personified in the pages of Entitlement as the Aspinall family, a Canadian dynasty who function as both objects of adoration and society-page gossip fodder. “We long for their example, grace, and luxury,” Bennett’s Carraway-proxy Andy Kronk tells a journalist at one point. “They remind us life is not democratic, or equal, or just. They fuel our selfish desires; they harden our egalitarian resolve. We yearn to be them if we only could; we loathe them because we will never be. They are the beloveds, the entitled, the unaccountable ones, and they walk among us, breathe our air. They both own and ignore us.”

Like Carraway, Andy is by far the most likeable character to inhabit the pages, a lower-class man with childhood (and father-encouraged) dreams of becoming a hockey player. His school friendship with Colin Aspinall leads to an intensely close relationship with the entire Aspinall clan, a Canuck version of American dynasties such as the Kennedys and the Bushes, with echoes of Conrad Black. Like those families, the Aspinalls are constantly cloaked in a cloud of suspicion and scandal, albeit from a more sedate Canadian point of view. As the patriarch Aspinall instructs Andy, “even when Canadians were not speaking in hand-wringing double negatives, they were, at least, being polite - if not outright pre-emptively apologizing for some, as yet to occur-affront.” We are a uniquely accommodating people to Bennett’s mind, and it is this discrepancy between our outwardly accepting natures and those of our more raucous neighbours to the south that drives much of
Entitlement’s substantial entertainment value.

Entitlement opens, Andy has voluntarily removed himself from the Aspinall’s sphere, living in a cabin and pondering his next life move. Interrupting his sojourn is Trudy, a journalist charged with the task of writing an Aspinall tell-all biography. Andy is an encyclopedia of the Aspinall’s considerable skeletons, but has a few of his own he is not eager to share. Even less eager are the Aspinalls themselves: daughter Fiona, jet-setter a la Paris Hilton (but far more substantial in intelligence and personality); son Colin, mysteriously unaccounted for; and patriarch Stuart, far more powerful and ruthless than anyone suspects.

While these characters are outwardly stereotypes of the rich and restless jet set who habitually grace the pages of
Hello! and the screens of, Bennett accomplishes the not-insubstantial task of humanizing the aristocracy in a age where we seek their comeuppance with the fervor and bloodlust of Roman spectators to gladiatorial combat. Bennett has a gift for nuance, and while the actions of the Aspinalls may skirt parody, Bennett is skilled enough to craft their scandals as heart-breaking rather than ridiculous. He’s also astute enough to understand the true natures of the powerful as being no different than those of the populous middle-classes. Consider Stuart’s sizing-up of Fiona’s boyfriend, an American of serious privilege with designs on the White House:
He wants to walk into a room one day and have a man in a uniform with four stars say, Yes, sir! when he gives an unpopular order. He wants to watch that man hate him to the core of his being, but be unable to do anything about it…He wants, metaphorically, to bust his father’s balls.
If that isn’t one of the most concise summations of Bush Jr.’s entire reign, I don’t know what is.

Bennett also displays considerable flair for the caustic and witty, especially when it comes in the form of Mr. Aspinall’s attitude toward Canadian society. To Stuart, Canada is a nation of studious underachievers, a country of citizens almost snobbishly proud of their unassuming natures: “Fourth…was the ideal position for a Canadian to finish: a good outcome, but not crudely so, and at fourth and just one off the podium, Canadians positioned themselves for a prize more coveted by them than any shiny gold, silver, or bronze medal: a chance to display publicly just how polite and impossibly good-natured they were after having come so close.”

Now, is
Entitlement the Canadian Gatsby? The Awesome Aspinall? It’s probably too early to tell, but likely not. Entitlement has a few subplots that peter out rather than satisfy; the life of the journalist Trudy is covered to a great degree, but Bennett’s ultimate intention with her is unclear. 
But Entitlement is not, despite what I've written above, Gastby Redux; despite the parallels, Entitlement is its own creature, examining the lives of those we admire/despise with gravity and graciousness. In the end, it's a saga about family, a universal theme if there ever was one.

Small flaws do not serve to denigrate
Entitlement’s many strengths; indeed, they serve to emphasize the quality and power of the work as a whole. There is real lyricism in Entitlement’s narrative, and a sureness of hand that reveals Bennett as a true Canadian find. Entitlement may stumble occasionally, but who cares when the rest is this good?

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