Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Sole Question

How may the heart be closed
and then reopened,
the seal in miser’s blood
stamped, cooled–broken?

Monday, July 26, 2010

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


So many, many, many misfits
hanging barely on just this side of quit
and fall;
half-fits, ex-fits, never-to-be-ever fits
knocking beyond the banquet hall–

If no Great Tailor or conspiracy of shits,
what stint of heart or intellect fashioned the fit
so small?

Saturday, July 10, 2010

My Television Appearance

The Throw

In late January of 2006, my novel Catalogue Raisonné was nearing the end of its short run. Since publication in October, it had sold 150 copies and received one lukewarm review in Books in Canada. I’d read at the launch, at a literary festival, and at a library book club. All well before Christmas. No other venues had panned out and I’d had no communication about the book from anyone in several weeks. Time was almost up.

Television might be my last best shot, I thought. I had no idea how one got on it but I thought I had an angle.

I looked up the local station for my hometown and found the online contact for the director of the noon program, a half hour talk show with a male and female host. I crafted an e-mail pitching me as a guest on Mac’n Mo.

I’d grown up in the city, I explained, which had figured in all five of my books. More importantly, my current novel was a mystery set in the city’s art gallery circa 1984 and featuring many well-known neighbourhoods, restaurants and nightspots.

The show was light, I remembered. Short badminton rallies between the quipping hosts. To be considered as their birdie, I played up the local colour and mystery angles. While working in prizes, shortlists and reviews as entry credentials. It was a more delicate writing job than I expected. At one point I deleted the phrases “I’d be pleased” and “available anytime.” Then reinserted them. It was harder than a job application, since I could form no firm picture of the person at the other end. Who he was, what might impress him.

I read it over a few more times and pushed Send. You never know, I thought.

Five minutes later the phone rang in the other room. The director.

As soon as he’d confirmed that I was the e-mail writer, he asked:

“Why haven’t I heard of you?”

Surprised by the question, I mumbled awkwardly.

“Why haven’t I heard of you?” A hard voice, hurried. It got my back up.

How many small-press Canadian authors have you heard of? I wondered. Or large-press?

But I got out some jocular platitudes about small-press invisibility, “flying under the radar,” that seemed to reassure him. Perhaps mainly that I could quip under pressure.

“We can fit you in Monday,” he said. “But I need to see the book.”

It was Thursday. I looked at my watch. “I can ExpressPost it today. You’ll have it by tomorrow.”

“Fine. If you don’t hear from me, we need you in the Green Room by 10:30.”

He was gone. I sat by the phone, thinking: How is this possible? This haste. Whatever I thought of most of its shows, I thought of TV, the medium, as a big, sought-after deal. Then I thought a bit longer. Two other guests, he’d said. Five days a week. 15 X 52. Say, 700 bodies a year, allowing for some regulars and repeats.

A lot of content.

I bubble-packed the book and got it to the post office two minutes before it closed. Heard nothing further. I was on.

The old station was gone, or perhaps just covered. A dull silver cube occupied exactly the same square of ground, leaving the strip of grass and parking lot I remembered. It looked as if a huge box–wrapped in aluminum foil, shiny side in–had been lowered over the previous building.

Low-budget sci-fi, I thought, looking at the gray sheen from beside my car. The colony outpost. Or Silverfinger’s lair. I recalled the shining cubes of Woody Allen’s Sleeper, including the quaking, closet-sized “Orgasmatron” he’d stumbled blissfully out of.

You don’t know, I reminded myself sternly.

You don’t know was a kind of mantra I’d hit on, the sum of the self-coaching I’d given myself before my first TV appearance. You don’t know anything about TV (true). Don’t default to easy cynicism. Stay open. Remember what you’re there to do: talk about the book.

Inside, a security guard reading a magazine didn’t look up as I passed. The corridor hadn’t been cleaned recently. The elevator at its end was ancient, confirming my sense of a sheath-like facade. When the doors opened, I was taken aback by the amount of grime on the walls. A crumpled chip bag lay in one corner.

Off-camera, I thought. The exterior, which could be hosed down, might be needed for some establishing shots. Or a new intro sequence. Not this, though.

You don’t know

The Green Room was dirty. My housekeeping eye isn’t stringent, but a glance showed me dustballs, more crumpled snack bags, styrofoam cups with dried dark sediments, dust everywhere. As I perched on the edge of the ratty couch, I thought of Saturday’s dry cleaning bill for my suit.

Another guest arrived. A woman with two little dogs. She was wearing slacks and a T-shirt. I felt stiff in my suit and tie. She asked why I was there. Said she did a pet spot two or three times a year. Looked at ease, a takeout bag in her hand.

Rick, the director, came in.

We shook hands. “Hey, Judy!” he said. As he ran through procedures with me, he kept glancing at his watch. A large wall clock was right beside us.

I felt You don’t know losing ground to sleaze and haste. Like a sand castle eaten by dirty little waves.

“Ed’s late,” he said, to Judy. “Mike, you’ll go first. Judy, you’ll be our sandwich filling.” A grim smile. Did he have another kind? Then he left.

The lead dog lunged forward, got stubby legs around my calf. Its companion followed. The dry cleaner’s courteous old face came into my mind. I looked at Judy. She pulled back mildly on the leash, then let them go at it.

The makeup woman was overweight and sloppily dressed, badly made-up herself. Thick orange lipstick. Bright rouge circles. (No one will believe this, I thought. How could every cliché be true?)

In the hallway Rick and another man passed us, muttering.

“They haven’t heard from Ed,” said the makeup lady.

“Who’s Ed?”

Her eyes popped in surprise. “Our political analyst? The main guest?”

I’d forgotten completely about the federal election. It was today. And they were still short a guest on Thursday?

“Can I see where I’m going?” I asked.

Another eye-pop. “The studio?”


We went through the door beyond makeup. Two brown plaid couches, of the faded recroom quality we used to call fart-catchers, made an L on a square of blue. White light. The setup small. Just enough to furnish a lens. Beyond it, a dimness with machinery, a man on a stool eating a candy bar. He dropped the wrapper on the floor.

The set looked like what a family of modest means, forced to move in a hurry, had decided to leave with Goodwill.

You don’t know
was gone. Dissolved.

Get through this
had replaced it.

I sat in a high swivel chair, like a barber’s chair. The makeup woman swabbed orangey-brown onto my face.

“Close your eyes,” she said.

When I opened them, two well-dressed people with orange faces were looking at me. The man was grinning.

“Bryan,” he said. We shook hands. “And this is Sherry.” She smiled at me. “So you’re our author.”

I nodded, caught myself gaping in the mirror. Closed my mouth. TV was making me mute. The one thing I’d told myself must not happen.

The hosts exchanged a look. Bryan punched me lightly on the shoulder. “Just be ready when we throw to you, okay, Mike?”

Then asked me how to pronounce the title of my novel. I told him. Friends had warned me I’d regret using a French art term. That had come true.

“We’ll introduce you, then throw to you here. Then you come on. That’s it!”

They were gone. Except for the makeup woman, now slouched in a chair sipping a Coke, everyone here just popped in and out. Nothing lasted longer than thirty seconds.

The throw
. Outside of sports–where you could throw a ball or a game–my only association with the phrase came from Holden Caulfield’s elevator pimp: “Five bucks a throw, fifteen bucks till noon.”

But I could gather the meaning here. A batter-on-deck shot of me in the dressing room.

Judy came in for her makeup. The makeup woman warned her to stay out of my throw line.

“How many times, Bev?” said Judy. She had a chilly smile. Where were her dogs?

I fell into another of the dazes I’d warned myself against. The place had a lulling effect, or I lulled myself defensively against it. Dissipating all the adrenaline and sense of mission I’d felt coming in.

Mac’n Mo the last names, I thought idly. First of the last....Mac-something, Mo-something. Speculations like little clouds drifted through my mind.

“CAT-A-LOGUE R-R-R-AI-SON-ÉE!” boomed suddenly through the air. Bryan’s drawn-out roar sounded uncannily like fight announcer Michael Buffer bellowing the name of an unknown challenger.

And then a camera of unseemly size was jostling into position below me in the cramped space. Pointing up.

“Don’t watch the monitor,” Bev hissed quietly.

Too late. My eyes darted around, taking in slivers of herself and Judy, then found myself, my face, orange and elongated, open-mouthed. I closed my lips on a vapid smile.

“Let’s hope he doesn’t write in a couple more victims, eh, Sherry?” I heard, even louder. Closer yet nowhere.

The smile in the monitor tightened. The eyes stared.

The camera swivelled abruptly away, the cameraman scrambling after it.

“Go!” Judy’s hiss and shove between my shoulders.

At home in the bathroom, I wiped at the crusted makeup with a damp cloth. It had got on my shirt collar and my suit lapels–more dry cleaning. I washed my face. Then stripped and showered.

So now you know

Did I know? TV must have degrees, like everything else. Mac’n Mo wasn’t Charlie Rose. But something told me they would share essentials. The worst fast food franchise still preps you for the best.

About my time under the lights I remembered little. What I’d done or said was a blank. Afterwards, I stayed on for the dog lady and the election analyst. The dogs molested my legs at intervals, creating a running gag. The cameraman dropped another wrapper. I could see litter everywhere beyond the lights. Crumples of crap and heaped junk, all of it under the mildly shining, shawl-like dust.

The makeup marred some people more than others, I noticed (it helped no one). It most nearly suited Bryan's booming bonhomie, like a jock’s painted-on tan. But it made the quieter Sherry look older. Drying, it gave her fine wrinkles, so that I was surprised to see, close-up, an unlined, youthful face within it.

(I had only lurid clues of what it had done to me. Despite a wipe-off that had felt thorough, Bev left me with warpaint smears on my cheeks and forehead. I didn’t see the orange slashes until I got home. Yet no one had given me a second glance when, on my way back, I cast my ballot at the elementary school near my apartment. Truly, a universal franchise.)

A few days later, two friends dropped by with a tape they’d made of the show.

“You watch it,” I said. “I’ll make the drinks.”

But their barely suppressed barks of laughter brought me back out of the kitchen. What the hell, I thought.

The elongated leer of the throw, in merciless close-up, couldn’t help but summon Norma Desmond at the end of Sunset Boulevard. “I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille.”

But the face was middle-aged male, shot from way below (why?), with the already large forehead made bigger by the thin, swab-slicked hair. A very long, bulbed effect. The black hole of mouth. Familiar, somehow.


Munch’s O-mouthed screamer on the bridge.

But that was only awful and, yes, hilarious. Not surprising. What surprised was my five minutes of talk. Given the state I’d been in, I expected awkward silence broken by prompted blurts. But I was lucid. Animated. Cogently summarizing my novel. Leaning forward into questions. Engaged. What I’d wanted after all: talking, really talking, about my book.

And totally wrong. As wrong as my throw-scream.

We turned it off and, drinking, analyzed why. Genuine interest and enthusiasm, unless coolly muted, came out as geekish caricature on camera. Those film actor interviews where they talked about scaling down from the stage. Minimalism.

Either that or strongly over-the-top. Bryan’s braying gags right on. Right for the noonday box. They shot, somehow, clean over the moon to land safe in clownish fraternity.

The box had its laws and skewed by them. Judy’s chill warmed up a degree in the lens, suggesting sophistication. Sherry’s flitting anxiety became solicitude, the mother to Bryan’s goofy teen.

Only ardency, earthbound eagerness, went badly wide.

Bryan and Sherry were too experienced to look concerned. And maybe they weren’t; I was talking at least. But they kept trying to lighten it up, tossing me lines to quip with (“Er, Hannibal Lector doesn’t make an appearance, does he?”). I tapped these back (“Saving him for the sequel”) and continued talking. Not manically, but with obvious engagement. But next to Bryan, engagement looked like obsession. The long, fat wink he gave me at commercial, after Sherry had thrown to Judy (who caught it smartly), looked like the visual equivalent of a gasp of relief. Over and out.

Like Holden, I’d fumbled the throw and what came after, undone by a more pressing need for conversation.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

A review of my novel Catalogue Raisonné

The Antigonish Review
161. (Spring 2010): 99-101.
Review by Darryl Whetter

Catalogue Raisonné

Mike Barnes
238 pp.
ISBN 0-9735971-9-4

With its keen, imaginative attention to the varied operations of a mid-sized Canadian art gallery, Mike Barnes’s novel Catalogue Raisonné invites an obvious architectural metaphor. Quite simply, Catalogue Raisonné has a superb blueprint, and its many successes follow from its enabling design. From its inception, the novel triangulates art, careerism and society. Barnes shrewdly augments those triangulated inquiries in choosing a gallery security guard as his protagonist. Paul and the other guards are steadily reminded of their low status in the gallery’s repeatedly articulated pecking order. Circling the gallery’s many rooms and deepening scandals, Paul generally enjoys his view from the margins, at least until events turn deadly.

With the foundation of a gallery setting and its marginal protagonist, Catalogue Raisonné manages to avoid Can Lit’s two most common mistakes in writing about work. Generally, too much of our fiction falls into the Hollywood trap of ignoring the workaday necessities of earning a living. Paul and Angela, his romantic cohabitant, both work at the gallery in low-paying jobs. Refreshingly, we see characters who worry about rent increases and can only afford cocaine for really special occasions (the novel is set in 1984). Barnes can and does write illuminatingly and rewardingly about the intricacies of brushstrokes and shading, but never gratuitously fills pages with a homework-heavy techno-porn devoted to the chemistry of oil on canvass. He’s confident and reader-friendly enough to show his own eye for art without ever losing his story, as when he refers to the “suicidal stasis” in an Alex Coville painting. Unlike Michael Ondaatje, Jane Urquhart or Carol Shields, Barnes knows he’s writing a story, not a how-to manual. Refreshingly, this novel includes normal, clock-punching citizens who happen to paint, not an arts aristocracy or speculation about some past European master.

Plot has become an endangered species in Canadian fiction, yet Catalogue Raisonné cradles its varied strengths of characterization, lively prose and a keen social and psychological eye within a steadily evolving plot. Paul, a former punk musician, is not the only misfit working security. Sean, or Mumbles as the others call him, prefers to police the most remote and empty rooms of the gallery to better work on his epic poetry. Another attendant, Robert, works endlessly on a symphony and cohabits with his sister Claudia, a neurotic painter. Paul and Robert discuss the gallery, art, and life during their regular chess games. When these idle speculations turn to how a painting could be stolen from the gallery, Robert’s mental instability is only the first shocking discovery.

As a genuine novel, Catalogue Raisonné is less concerned with the what and how of art than with its why. Barnes, the author of five books of fiction and a memoir, writes knowingly about “the self-doubt and self-pity and rivalry and envious gossip that were the artist’s lot.” In his perpetual place on the sidelines, Paul notices that the gallery’s “Outreach” coordinator made it impossible “to distinguish the genuine from the artificial in a true ‘people person.’ That was what being a people person meant.” Romantically, Paul is the kind of guy who privately admits he likes the relationship he’s in for now, and yet doesn’t exclude that relationship from his (under-stimulated) intelligence. As the art theft plot turns deadly and the stress rises, Paul sees both the strengths and the weaknesses of his relationship: “Angela had begun to use words like ‘supportive’ and ‘nurturing’ far too often, but she actually was those things. It was partly why I loved her. It was also why I hated to hear her talk that way. And if it was true that her tenderest sympathies usually found their way back round to herself, was she any different from the rest of us in that? From me? At least her feelings made the outward journey first.” The novel is fuelled by a dynamic plot but also draws interesting material for both the head and the heart in its wake.

The commitment to plot, however, also produces the novel’s only shortcoming. Near the end, Barnes sprints too quickly for the finish line and strains credulity, interest and sympathy. Inexplicably, worry doesn’t rise when the body count does. Major ethical and legal considerations are brushed aside in a race for the finish. A late romantic development is prepared on only one front when it should have been prepared on several.

Catalogue Raisonné is much, much more than a novel with an interesting setting and subject. As a mid-career writer, Barnes writes knowingly and intriguingly about one art world while working in another. With the multiple strengths in prose, character and plot he shows here, Barnes deserves a good, long run.

Darryl Whetter is a creative writing prof at Dalhousie. His latest book is The Push & the Pull, a novel of love, death and bicycling. See for details.