Archive for the ‘Terry Fallis’ Category

Is there anything more frustrating than reading a good book that, with a judicious editor, could have been great?  The Best-Laid Plans by Terris Fallis skewers two of my favourite satire subjects: politics and higher education.  Daniel Addison, a young political aide for the Opposition, quits just as the country in preparing for an election but grudgingly agrees to locate a candidate for his new riding to run against the country’s amazingly popular finance minister.  Daniel gets his candidate, a dour engineering professor named Angus McLintock, by guaranteeing that there’s no way this election can be won and by agreeing to take over Angus’ much hated English for Engineers teaching duties.  But, as the title suggests, things go somewhat awry.

Daniel, as our hapless everyman, is both endearing and annoying.  He comes across as timid and susceptible.  With few exceptions, his successes are brought about by quirks of fate and have nothing to do with his intentions.   

Angus, on the other hand, is magnificent.  Plain-spoken, unconcerned with appearances, and utterly unpredictable, he is a force to be reckoned with.  He is a folk hero for a modern, jaded age, a politician with no political agenda.  And he has a homemade hovercraft, which makes him ridiculously cool.  Even if he is an engineer (as a B.Comm I am sworn to mock engineers as they were the only foes worthy of our attention on campus).  Indeed, my favourite parts of the novel might have been the English for Engineers (E for E) classes that Daniel gives to hopeless first years.

When you tire of mocking politicians, academics are always a worthy target and the following exchange between Lindsay, the object of Daniel’s affections, and Daniel discussing their prolonged adolescence/continuing education, amused me to no end:

‘…I sometimes think I’m pursuing the graduate degree because I don’t know what I want to do.  A master’s seemed like a worthwhile stalling tactic.’

‘In my humble, PhD-addled opinion, staying in school is seldom a bad idea regardless of the reasons.  I don’t think I really started to appreciate the university experience until halfway through my master’s.’ (p.82-83)

This seems to encapsulate the attitudes of so many of my friends, who, two years after we graduated, are starting their PhDs, fully planning to spend as many years as possible hiding out on yet another university campus. 

It was the first half of the novel that let me down, the over-long section leading up to the fateful election.  The narrative rambled and the so-called amusing bits about Daniel slipping in dog shit were painful: does Fallis really think people who are looking for political satire are the same to enjoy such juvenile humour?  What could have been amusing bits were drawn out for too long, belabouring a once funny point and destroying any traces of wit.  As readers are too often reminded, drama is easy, comedy is hard.  It requires restraint and a light touch, trusting that the reader is intelligent enough to understand.  The novel did settle as it progressed though and my amusement by the end was genuine and unmarred by the embarrassment of earlier gaffs.  I’m quite looking forward to the newly-released sequel, The High Road, and hopeful that Fallis’ second effort will refine on the promise of his first.     

More than anything, this book made me desperately miss Ottawa.  After Vancouver, there is no where in Canada that I love more.  With his many mentions of local attractions and favourite restaurants, Fallis made me long for a city that I once knew so well but now haven’t visited in more than two years.  That’s a desperately long time to have gone without visiting the National Gallery, eating at Mamma Teresa’s or just wandering through Byward Market or along the canal (or skating along it in the winter).  At the end of the novel, the city is brought to a standstill by a massive blizzard, watched from a room overlooking Parliament at the Chateau Laurier by two of the main characters.  As much as I loathe snow, I can’t think of a more romantic setup than that.  And whatever flaws this novel may have, I will forgive them all for this one sentence, describing Daniel’s feeling on the exquisite Library of Parliament, possibly the most perfect place in the nation for any true bibliophile: “I’d entered that place dozens, even hundreds of times and always felt a slight wobble in my knees as I passed over the threshold”(p. 166).

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