“And Oh, I Wrote a Book, Too”

Writing at keyboardOne day when I first started coming regularly to Montréal from Halifax — maybe in 2000 or 2001 — a bespectacled goateed man a few years older than me came up to me at the computer I was renting at the Presse-Café in the Village. He bent down at eye level with me, and delivered without a hint of irony what to this day remains the corniest come-on line of my life.

“Are you always this gorgeous or do you take a break once in a while?”

I’m even embarrassed to type that line, as much for having been its recipient (and admitting to it!) as for Arme who delivered it. But that over-the-top flourish is central to this story I’m about to tell you.

I would see Arme out and about in the Village each time I would come to Montréal in the subsequent years and I would always speak to him, if only to say hello, for he really is a nice guy despite his penchant for hyperbole. But one of the last times I saw him about a year before I moved to Montréal, I overheard a very small part of the conservation he was having with someone else and I got the impression that his work situation had taken an unexpected turn for the worse. That time, not wanting to interrupt the conversation he was having, I merely said hello to him and went on my way.

When I moved to Montréal three years ago I never saw him around, so I assumed that he had moved elsewhere. That was until one warm evening early this summer, just days or weeks after the main drag through the Village was closed off to car traffic: I noticed him sitting by himself on the terrace as I was entering the Second Cup at the corner of Rue Panet, so I joined him and we caught up on our news of the last few years.

Quite some time into our conversation, he dropped the line I’ve had several other people drop on me before: “And I also published a book last year.” I have to admit that my heart always drops a little whenever I hear someone say that but invariably I respond enthusiastically and ask about it. He briefly outlined it as an unusual love story set in Montréal featuring a Lebanese immigrant (“Oh, just like him,” I thought), a Québec architect, and an assorted crew of people whose lives unexpectedly came together. He also talked about the difficulty he had in getting his novel published and the harsh criticism one of his distant acquaintances levelled towards it. “But you should read it,” he added — a line I expected to come at any moment just as one always expects the proverbial other shoe to drop.

About a month later, after seeing him a few times at the same spot in the Village, I had a crisp new $20 bill on me and he had a copy of his book in his backpack. For this post, I’m choosing not to reveal the book’s title nor Arme’s real name. I’m feeling a bit guilty about not doing so because that might help him sell another copy or two but, if search engines were to lead him to this post, he might not like what I have to say about his novel.

As is my habit, however, I would like to start with what’s good about his book.

Many years ago, someone gave me a book as a gift, a murder mystery in French set in Ottawa. Twice I tried to read it and each time I wasn’t able to go beyond the first 60 or 70 pages. One of the numerous things that drove me crazy was the author’s choice of adjectives to describe the protagonist, such as referring to him repeatedly as “the Franco-Ontarian sleuth.” I found such word choice heavy-handed and unimaginative, as there could have been many other ways of showing the protagonist’s regional identity rather than constantly telling the reader what it was.

Thankfully, Arme’s narrative is not like that, so, as a consequence, I read through his novel very quickly, picking it up every chance I got until I reached the end. I did so despite being turned off by the book’s astonishingly cliché title and the rather immodest and inappriopriate author’s bio. I did so despite repeatedly finding the coincidences of how the characters met to be overwrought, unlikely, or, yes, over-the-top in several instances. And I did so despite the editor in me getting annoyed with not only incorrect grammar and syntax in some spots, but also some troublesome lack of transition and problems with continuity, not to mention bad translations of some French words or expressions — all things a dispassionate content and copy editor could have flagged as requiring adjustment before submitting the manuscript for consideration.

When I was a young adult, I had this crazy notion in my mind of writing a novel. I was still living in Moncton at the time. I even started writing it — longhand, no less — and I was setting it in Halifax. But I quickly dropped the project, for I came to realize my shortcomings in writing fiction. Indeed, I realized that, on the one hand, developing a distinctive narrative voice and, on the other hand, giving the characters a distinctive voice of their own was not only a monumental task but also a talent I did not have. I admit that wasn’t how I articulated my self-critique at that time; I just knew that it “wasn’t good” and that it “didn’t sound authentic.”

Think of the acclaim Wally Lamb received for She’s Come Undone: that a man could give such a believable voice to the female protagonist is nothing short of a master coup. Also think of good novels you have read, when you would wish you could slap a character for thinking or behaving in a particular way, all the while remembering to cut the character some slack because, unlike the narrator or the reader, that character doesn’t have the full picture of everything that’s happening or what the true thoughts and motivations of the other characters are.

To his credit, Arme manages very well at crafting a complex plot. However, where he comes short is in giving his characters a sufficiently distinct voice that would give them more depth. Sadly, if not in content then certainly in sound, the characters’ inner voice is similar, at times to the point of interchangeability. Sometimes I even thought that all the male characters sound like mini Armes, which is a similar thought I had about my aborted attempt at writing a novel, in that I noticed that the characters sounded like what I wished I sounded.

The other difficulty I have with his novel — and this is a major difficulty — is the way it lacks irony while playing into the greatest gay man’s cliché of them all, namely that, deep down, all guys are gay if only they would get to meet the right guy. It’s the reversal of parents’ anguished cry upon a son’s announcement that he is gay: “Maybe it’s just a phase. Maybe you just haven’t met the right girl yet.” Indeed, the novel begins with only one fully “out” gay character and one who is repressing his coming out until he cannot resist the beautiful gaze of the fully out character’s rivetting blue eyes. All the other main male characters, safe perhaps two or three, start off in the novel being straight and end up becoming involved in a same-sex relationship — all long-term except for one guy who sufferred a fatal heart attack upon being outed by his wife holding photographic evidence of her husband’s recent foray on Team Gay while on a business trip in Vegas with a Lebanese assistant who turns the head of all females and males, irrespective of sexual orientation, who happen to set eyes on him.

Enough said.

In the past while, I have been telling you about how I discovered my extreme inability to deal with confrontation; imagine, therefore, my great discomfort in seeing Arme now, who would like me to express my impressions of his novel. I realize that I mustn’t view this chat as a confrontation, yet I admit that I’ve been going out of my way to avoid both this talk and Arme. Indeed, while keeping in mind that I’m patently incapable of lying, I will just have to find the words so that they come off as I intend them, namely as constructive criticism, for I do think there’s potential for him to become a better author and I recognize that I, myself, could not have managed to do so well the parts that he did do well.