Last week I had the pleasure of catching up with Cory Doctorow
over a breakfast orders of magnitude more healthy than the last meal we had shared. Our topics
I've been fascinated by Someone Comes To
Town, Someone Leaves Town, Cory's third book, which someone called "the weirdest
book I've ever read." It's not obvious; it's clearly allegorical; it's rich and
funny and any reading must include pauses for putting the book down and letting
your brain absorb connected lumps of ideas. Each of the main characters has some
feature that makes them decidedly not-quite-human; most of the characters go by
an alliterative appelation that mirrors a baby name book more than a work of
science fiction at times. Eventually you realize that all of the "A" names
are the same person, as are the "B" names, and so on. Cory explained that
the book is about second generation immigrants, finding themselves between
a new, rich world and an old one with its own set of names and rules.
This struck a chord with me: growing up I heard my grandmother speak of
Yukisiel, Kusiel and sometimes the slightly more formal but muffled Yezekiel.
What I learned later is that those were all variations of Ezekiel, and I never
learned if she was referring to my father (Ezekiel is his middle Hebrew name,
Yezekiel in Yiddish) or one of her old-world siblings. As Cory pointed out
to me, drawing on his own Russian grandparents as inspiration for the
story, "everybody had five names." The strange, and often foreign, clothes,
foods, tastes (in food and clothing), names, and mixed pronunciations that
I heard in the 1960s are no more foreign than Doctorow's character Alan, who
has no navel, a mountain for a father, and a washing machine for a mother.
I've previously written that Cory is one of a few Canadians with whom I can
talk for an hour and not mention hockey. But in recapping our morning, I have
to draw on a favorite hockey book,
Roy MacGregor's The Last Season because of the common thread of
dealing with the foreign nature of our own cultures as seen a generation or
a continent removed from their origins. In MacGregor's book, [spoiler alert]
Felix, the Canadian protagonist, is a second generation Polish immigrant, an NHL
role player (read: fighter), and in the denouement of his career. Felix cannot
fathom why his grandmother refers to him as a monster, and refuses to show
him even the least affection; only later when truly desperate for a sense of his
identity and some direction does Felix' father share that he was born with a
caul, triggering superstitions
his parents felt belonged back in the old country. Felix learns that his
grandmother insisted that the caul be saved, dried and fed to him, so that young
Felix would acquire the strength to ward off the apocryphal evils otherwise
awaiting him. His parents rejected this bit of old world wisdom while Felix became
a stranger in the strange land of his grandmother.
In Someone Comes To Town, those not-quite-right quirks end up saving the
day, at least once, in scenes that you can literally smell coming off the
pages. If we understand and respect the cultural bits that got us from
Point A to Point B, things work out reasonably well. For Felix, his attempt
to appease old school myths is upended by his father's insistence that they
live wholly on one side of a cultural weirdness barrier. He grabs an unmarked, unnamed jar
convinced he's found what his grandmother stashed decades before, but
what Felix mixes with his breakfast is poisonous, not just the storied antidote to
a toxic tale. The results make Last Season the saddest hockey book I own (aside
from my own, which can't seem to write itself).
I just loaned my copy of Doctorow's book to a teenager,
eager to hear how she reacts to the story,
having matured in an era of rapidly changing, globally aware Gen Y culture that
tends leave those from the "old school" on the other side
of the social networking weirdness barrier.
[edits: minor midnight grammar cleanups].