Apr 24, 2007

Planet Reese by Codelia Strube - review

Cordelia Strube is a realist, in the most extreme sense. Not for her the provincial world of traditional CanLit, where horrific events classically occur through the gauzy mist of nostalgia, in a tiny Newfoundland community where the inhabitants are untouched by world events.

Strube rejects this cliché, embracing Canada as it exists in all its healthcare fiascos, climate change, and shortsighted government policies. Her Canada is one overrun by “doughy cretins, unable to see beyond their own greed and consumption,” and after six novels, Strube holds claim to being a premier purveyor of feel-bad Canadian literature.

Planet Reese continues this trend, beginning with its protagonist Reese Larkin at the lowest depths of despair, and seeing how much more punishment one man can take. It is more or less a retelling of the Book of Job, except far funnier, and holy salvation at tale’s end appears exceedingly unlikely.

Reese is an environmentalist beset on a multitude of fronts by the plagues of the 21st century. His wife has taken their children, and only communicates through a social worker. In order to prove he can hold down a ‘real’ job, he has taken a position with a marketing/phone centre, “a thankless, repulsive job and only the desperate or truly naïve can stand it, and even they never last.”

Making matters worse, he accidentally kills an innocent man on a plane, and is thereafter mistakenly heralded as a hero for thwarting a presumed terrorist attack. Overwhelmed with guilt and shame, his days are now filled with news reports of domestic abuse, murder, and environmental degradation, and for some reason he cannot find himself a comfortable mattress or a good, cheap pair of shoes.

Reese’s manic rage at being ostracized for caring about the planet forms Planet Reese’s blackly comic heart. A Quixotic figure, even Reese is surprised by his cynicism, unable to even enjoy a documentary on Christopher Reeve without thinking about “the money involved in trying to mend a severed spinal cord…money that could be sent to seventeen month-old babies in North Korea or Iraq or Afghanistan.”

Strube’s refusal to sugarcoat the insanity of “the Western world’s insatiable quest for the perfect chair and mattress” may serve to dissuade a reader from visiting Planet Reese. It is a valid criticism of the majority of Strube’s past output that too much hopelessness can be hard to take.

Yet Strube’s fondness for her put-upon characters is such that Planet Reese remains entertaining even as Reese digs himself a psychological hole so deep he cannot competently function in life. Bewildered at how “anyone could rest their head on a hundred dollar pillow when stick-thin Ethiopian children and stacks of corpses were in the news,” Reese sets himself up for the kind of self-destructive breakdown good literature excels at.

“When you no longer hope for signs of intelligence, compassion or kindness,” Reese howls, “are you safe from harm?” Strube doesn’t provide an answer, but in asking the question, she has ensured that Canadian fiction will remain relevant to the perils of our age.

First published in The Winnipeg Free Press, April 22, 2007.

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