Disclaimer: I do love CNQ for a lot of reasons, not least of which is its dedication to having very diverse pieces on theme in each issue. As a consequence, not everyone is going to love every piece. That's the point. This piece, I did not love, to put it mildly.
My first impression of "The Gutter Years" was that it was a Henry Miller hack (despite Sijan's note that Faulkner was his hero). Upon second reading, the judgment remains. Miller wrote real, intense filth, full of sex and destitute depravity. Sijan tries to be a tough guy that gets a lot of pussy, while admitting that Mommy and Daddy still pay the rent. Tossing in the odd superfluous scatological reference ("he'd given me just enough to float my turd of hope") does not real filth make. Friends, Miller is alright by me; filth in literature is alright by me, great even. Sijan is just posing.
|Do me, Henry.|
My parents tried to dissuade me from moving to Mexico: "A dangerous place," according to Mom, "full of ignorant peasants." When I showed her a picture of Alma, she said, "Oh, she's really Mexican."He doesn't bother to disagree. Sijan's treatment of Alma, the woman he supposedly loves, is pretty loathsome. In a culture where a woman living unmarried with a man is—by Sijan's account— a pretty big black mark, he tosses her aside when it looks like things will work out with his novel back in Canada. And the only cited reason for not cheating on her is not his "love," but his feeling of being "[s]hamed and castrated for lacking her father's integrity." In the end, it's suggested that she's a bit off. I think. The scenes of their final time together don't really make much sense, but I'll give Sijan a break and assume that he meant to do that, to insinuate that at the time, Alma wasn't making much sense either. Then again, she had to go back to her town with a big strike against her. I wonder what became of her.
The Globe also chose to quote the first bit I found extremely troubling:
I was very busy teaching English as a second language and having sex with my Japanese, Korean, Brazilian and Mexican students.Now, I don't care if you're heading up a yoga class, or teaching a graduate English course: fucking your students is pretty wrong. There's a power differential there. Those can be sexy, sure. Power games are common role play themes. But taking advantage of that power differential in real life is creepy; bragging about it is douchebaggery. To Sijan, though, women are just there to be used. The women in his life are either fucked, or handy go-betweens that can get his book seen by publishers. The only ones that don't fall into these two categories receive poor treatment: Anne McDermid is slandered with the insinuation ("The rumour was") that she's got a casting couch for young male authors—he accuses her of hitting on him, but he declines because, ew, cougars with fake hair colour and fake eyebrows! Tamara Faith Berger becomes a bad writer based on nothing but her reaction to his sexual invitation.
I tried to hit on her but she took no interest in me. Good. Your book is shit. I hadn't read it.At this point I need to wonder about Sijan's purported sexual magnetism: if you're so fuckable that all these ESL students are letting you have their way with them, why are none of the four pictures in the article of you? I mean, yes, Russell Smith is pretty, but let's see your face, irresistible one*. Women would die without you, right?
Sijan draws Smith into conversation at a party, telling him of the crazy bitch ex-girlfriend who threatened to kill herself, should they break up. Weirdly, Sijan declines to name this ex-girlfriend (probably because she put out). Smith would like to know the identity of this mystery crazy woman, but Sijan is a cock tease. Really he should know better, since he enjoys Smith's "honest explorations of male sexuality." He thinks. He hasn't actually read any of the books.
There's a lot of casual racism in "The Gutter Years" as well. While Sijan is living in Mexico, he refuses to learn the language, which is high irony for an ESL instructor. He finds work teaching English to Mexican kids that he dares call "spoiled and arrogant" while still getting a stipend from his parents. Everything in Mexico is dirty, but not the fun kind, and is whittled down to the presence of roaches, Alma included. In a ridiculously sloppy passage, he compares to the clicking of a mouse to the sound of a cockroach twice within a few lines. Best of all, that cockroach of memory "scuttled between [Alma's] legs." Subtle! On another note, if your friend from Pakistan calls himself a "Paki" that does not give you license to use the term "Paki food" a few paragraphs later. No 'hood pass for you, kiddo.
But so what, right? He treats women like shit. He also hasn't got anything nice to say about Sam Hiyate or Ed Sluga, the two men who are really the focus of this piece. These are the guys who hold Sijan's first novel in their hands. These are the guys who can't get it published, and are the source of frustration for years. There's real venom for them in "The Gutter Years" and understandably so. Sijan is caught is a terrifically frustrating situation, in limbo forever, with the only piece of work he's completed.
I saw myself as a victim whose drive to succeed had been crushed by publishing industry charlatans.Despite the description of this feeling as one of "epic delusion," I'd argue given the tone and content of "The Gutter Years," he's still feeling this way. Yet in the end, they're forgiven.
It took me a long time to understand that Sam didn't betray me. He was a friend and mentor who introduced me to an exciting world and facilitated many happy memories. [...] As for Ed, his "personal crisis" could have involved any number of issues, and he may have been powerless against the juggernaut of his own dysfunctionHey man, it's okay, I understand. Buds? I'm still wondering what happened to Alma.
I hesitated to write this post, because inevitably I'll be told I've missed the point. I've tried to find one, really, I have. Unlike the G&M writer, I didn't find anything new and interesting here; it's the same tired Entitled Dude** attitude I've been exposed to time and time again. The piece isn't shocking or ground-breaking, or even that well-written. It's just, to reiterate, gross. I get that Sijan's looking at the audience with big eyes saying, "I've been a vewy baaaad boy!" But so what?
Why do I give someone like Henry Miller a pass, when Marko Sijan just makes me feel slimed? I think part of it is authenticity. Marko's just slumming it. There's no artistic integrity here, he's just a filth tourist, and worse, he's no good at it. Telling me you fuck isn't dirty; everyone fucks—and everyone poops. (Hopefully, "we had sex in the manner of dogs" was meant to be hilarious.) Smoking pot isn't depraved, it's the Canadian national pass-time (and pretty benign at that). Slagging random CanLit names is just sour grapes. The rest is just sexist, classist, racist bullshit.
Sijan does note throughout the piece that he's aware his ego is large, and that he acts in ways that feed it. However, "The Gutter Years" is no mea culpa. There's absolutely no indication that Sijan is any less of a dick (and showing some sympathy for the dudes that fucked your career over doesn't save your soul when everyone else is still under the bus), and he doesn't apologise. He doesn't have to, of course. But if not, then why does this piece exist at all? One can argue that it's one man's look back at his attempts to create that decadent life, to be in the "gutter but looking at the stars," and failing in that pursuit. Why else mention his inability to provide for himself, his ego, his acknowledgment he was a liar? If this is the brutal honestly I'm supposed to admire, I'm not buying it. Admitting you're an asshole doesn't automatically make you interesting. You need to be interesting, asshole.
This character is at once so vile and so boring, that the admissions don't mitigate judgment, like I assume they're supposed to. Again, it just seems like he's bragging, rather than acknowledging his shortcomings. Worst, in the end, I just don't give a shit. (I don't give a shit enough to write 1500 words, right?) Probably, the piece exists mostly to promote the fact that his book is finally being published. Because as we all know, sensation gets attention, and I've played right into it.
*Oh, there you are. "Marko’s two specialties are in helping students develop proficiency in oral and written communication." IYKWIM!
**Note this is a specific Dude Type. I'm not saying all men have the same entitlement issues. However, this Entitled Dude is not an uncommon worldview.