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The Blue Light Project and the Urgency of Now,
This review is from: The Blue Light Project (Hardcover)
Under the persistent sway of pecuniary-minded editorship, the mainstream of Canadian literature has for the past several decades massaged the novel-buying Canadian public with heartfelt, achingly personal "local fictions," that are reassuring in their affirmations of love and domestic fortitude amidst Canada's natural, rural and coastal glories. These fictions might be classified the way art historians refer to the mannered domestically-oriented still-lives and portraits of 16th Century Flemish painting: miniaturist. When this vein in Canadian literary fiction seemed all but overworked, our readership was regaled with the same domestic miniaturism but this time the ghosts of Canada's history were set in motion along with the usual quotidian suspects. Of course, occasional exceptions peek above these re-iterations of the familiar (one thinks of Ondaatje, M. Richler, Atwood in her better books, and the crucial explorations of contemporary international experience, as Mistry has done). This now familiar miniaturism, it must be noted, has worked wonders for Canadian fiction on the international stage. Drawing on preconceptions of Canada as rural and morally righteous, our literary editorship has done much to bolster the Canada brand.
The way we live now, however, is deeply embedded in and expressed through the modalities of technology and globalized economics, politics and culture. And for those of us who turn to literature as an art form that takes up and explores central meanings and implacable contradictions in contemporary experience, those previously mentioned re-iterations of the familiar, however finely wrought, cannot but fail to be somewhat beside the point. In this contrast between the familiar Canadian miniaturist brand and the urgency of the globalized now, Timothy Taylor's new novel, The Blue Light Project, takes its stand. As a writer who in his non-fiction has explored the vagaries of global fashions in travel, food, restaurant design, and popular culture, Taylor is an author with his finger on the pulse of contemporary taste and the pervasive economic and political forces that shape such sensibilities. Thus, subtly supporting this taut novel of confrontations between celebrity and politics, personal disgrace and the possibility of redemption, is an elaborate architecture of ideas.
One of the main clues to this structure is a relatively minor character named Girard. For those who keep up with debates in literary and anthropological theory, as well as in evolutionary psychology and the contemporary significance of religion, the name Rene Girard may ring a bell. (Perhaps the best introduction to his thought is the outstanding five-part CBC Ideas radio documentary, "The Scapegoat".) Girard theorizes that archaic cultures have traditionally maintained their cohesiveness through sacrificial practices, where internal crises generate panic and contagious persecutorial fears and which find a release in the spontaneous killing of a scapegoat. Rituals and prohibitions found in every culture represent for Girard attempts to regulate crises and redeploy this beneficial outcome -- hence the evidence of human and/or animal sacrifice in virtually every culture of which we have record, let alone the startling similarities in many foundational myths from different cultures in which an outsider figure is depicted as a pollution or threat and the community itself as innocent. Working against this tendency in the history of the West and now on an increasingly global scale are insights first expounded, according to Girard, in Biblical narratives (Joseph and Jesus are obvious examples) in which the collective is depicted as culpable and the intended sacrificial victim as innocent. Thus our modern concern with victims, with the oppressed and the downtrodden. This leaves us moderns in a precarious position-- we crave, we may even need, the collective psychological satisfactions of sacrifice yet we also abhor and abjure the very production of victims that sacrifice (and perhaps even politics) requires.
And what has any of this to do with The Blue Light Project? In this finely executed novel, Timothy Taylor depicts the intersection of four lives, a burned out and disgraced journalist, a sporting celebrity, an unknown street artist, and a political terrorist whose motivations, in the end, expose themes central to this story. And undergirding a page-turner that will satisfy the most ardent of thrill seekers are two sacrificial structures that Taylor uncannily reveals to be at the core of contemporary experience: celebrity and Western expansionist politics. The hostage taking at the studios of a Canadian Idol-like program forces into our awareness the social usefulness and collective gratifications of a system that produces star after star and yet this same machinery repeatedly depicts the sacrificial downfall of our "polluted" idols -- Charlie Sheen, anyone? Lindsay Lohan? Mel Gibson? We experience collective elations not only at their rise but their fall conduces to even greater satisfactions. Running parallel to this, in Taylor's cultural-political economy, is a hidden system of sacrifice that bolsters modern expansionist democracies -- the torture chambers, extra-ordinary renditions and extraditions, and the quasi-legal gulag of off-shore detention facilities that covertly enforce Western ideals and protect our culture from further exposures of its core contradictions.
By placing his novel at the centre not only of contemporary life but also in the flux of beliefs and morally contradictory practices that sustain globalized living in the West, Taylor relentlessly insists that the vocation of Canadian fiction is in the now, it is in the Twitter feeds and popular media, the international trends and the political machinations that churn endlessly at our lives. Taylor's response to the staid "local fictions" of much Canadian literature is to give us an unnamed city that is as "linked in" and connected as any on the planet. The Blue Light Project has a lot of balls in the air -- fame and celebrity, street art, politics and the secret service, Girard and sacrifice -- and Timothy Taylor masterfully balances these things. And many others. Miniaturist it is not. It is a genuinely moving novel, building to a great climax and with a denouement that provokes the kind of reflection on what has happened, on how it has been depicted, that only the best fiction can do.
Kent Enns is Professor of Political Philosophy at Humber College in a city named Toronto.