There is enough to grind a bibliophile these days. Publishing has become mass production of feel-good entertainment. Independent booksellers have been replaced by mega-box stores. Serious reading appears to be in freefall. Something has to be done. How far would you go for literature?
In Redekop’s debut novel, Shelf Monkey, Thomas Friesen is a lapsed Mennonite and a failed lawyer. Barely staying afloat of depression, Friesen takes a job at a bookstore, READ, “the first circle of Hell, literary limbo, a publisher’s wet dream, the author’s nightmare. A vacuous, arid, vile product of bottom line economics.” Floating above the shelves is a big head, the plump likeness of Munroe Purvis, talk show host, publisher and promoter of the worst kind of sentimental drivel. What Purvis endorses, everyone buys. And as Page the manager says, “The customer is always right.”
Thomas feels fortunate to meet kindred literary spirits among the employees. Aubrey is the guru of the Shelf Monkeys, a secret ‘book club’ to which Thomas gets invited. “Some books are simply a waste of paper, a waste of effort both to write and to read.” The flaming cover of this novel is sufficient clue to the book burnings that ensue, inspired by Fahrenheit 451. Books burnings, by the literate?! Only for books deemed not worthy by the members’ code. “We meet, we debate, we burn. It’s therapy, really.” Things escalate quickly and darkly, Lord of the Flies style, and Thomas is compelled to choose between his loyalties to his friends, literature, ethics, and his sanity.
Crafty transitions keep the reader vigilant. I found it odd at first that a novel sympathetic to literature would be written in fragments — news clippings, transcripts, emails — but these forms transition into narrative, especially the emails to real-life writer Eric McCormack (whose novel The Dutch Wife has a character named Thomas; I haven’t read it). Early on I found Thomas to be a disagreeable character, a sorry sort wallowing in his self-created misery. But then he asks his therapist, “You ever get lost in a book, Dr. Newhire?” It is the first hint of an inner depth. The novel is instantly Canadian, replete with references such as Tim Horton’s, Timothy Findley, and the Giller prize. In the face of the expressly American Munroe Purvis, the gentle literate Canadians are terrorists, declaring jihad on the worst of capitalism and publishing. I caution the reader, Redekop can take you into damn frightening places.
Shelf Monkey poses a troublesome question to book lovers and the arts in general. The insanity of book burnings is a no-brainer. Rather, I am talking about setting one type of art above another. I have enjoyed some of the ‘trash’ that gets burned in the novel. Even Aubrey had a copy of The Celestine Prophecy in his collection. Thomas struggles with the snobbery of the Shelf Monkeys. Who is to say which book is good, and which one is bad? As a recent library sciences graduate, Redekop must be familiar with Rosenberg’s motto, “Never apologize for your reading tastes.” As I see it, no one can ever tell what book will speak to a person. Even so, can we never assert a standard of quality?
Author’s blog: http://shelf-monkey.blogspot.com/