(Because I am slammed up against deadlines (so many deadlines!), here is a thing I wrote ages ago, but never posted, mostly because I wasn’t sure if I cared enough about this book to spend time discussing it. But I wrote it and it’s a nice change from the manga parade of late and I promise I will have something new for you next week after deadline panic has passed.)
First things first: This book is really British. Really British. I don’t think I realized what I was getting into when I asked the bookstore clerk to recommend something that probably wouldn’t get published in Canada, when I was in the Norwich last year. I had to look up what the title even meant. (Turns out a giro is “a cheque given by the British government to someone who is unemployed”, which I guess means that when you’re on the dole, you get giros? It all still sounds weird in my mouth.) So you know, if you’re not British, be warned. There’s a lot of UK-specific action in here.
Even so, The Giro Playboy has a lot in common with another first-person narrative I read recently, Grrrl by Canadian Jennifer Whitehead. I didn’t particularly care for either one of them (read my reasons for not liking Grrl here) (you’ll have to scroll down a bit because I am a technodullard and can’t figure out how to get it to link to just that review), although I liked Giro a lot more at the start and grew to dislike it for different reasons. Both books have a young narrator plodding along through life and trying to figure things out. And both seem to be pretty blatant Mary Sues. I mean, when the narrator in Giro is finally given a name, turns out it’s “Mr. Smith”.
Mr. Smith’s trajectory is basically would-be skid to starry-eyed writer. He goes through a series of shit jobs, ends up on welfare more than one time, delights in knowing the local street people and wading through the bottom of the barrel. The novel is written in paragraph-long sentences, broken up by ellipses, with each paragraph-sentence taking up one page, starting at the top of the page and ending halfway down, or starting halfway down, sometimes spilling over onto the next page, which ruined any appeal this style might have. I mean, if you are writing with some underlying rule like this, obey it. In any case, it soon grows tiresome and more than once, I found my eyes slipping over ellipses and the words in between them, not paying much attention to their content.
Understandable since the book is littered with Pollyanna lines like: “As I looked at him, I thought to myself, this is the shittiest advice I’ve ever heard: I still think that love can save the day; I still believe people are more good than bad; I’m still not scared to take a chance on life…” Really? Really? I mean, I get that he is a man in his early twenties, searching for meaning and trying to find a place in a world that doesn’t seem to want him, but come on. There are less hackneyed ways to be hopeful.
In amongst these pearls are crude drawings by Michael Smith himself. I’m not sure why they’re there. Occasionally, they are used to illustrate a point, but for the most part, they are just random drawings of scenes that figure vaguely in the text, or of people described. They don’t really add anything. At first, I found them inoffensive, but like everything else about this book, they started to grate on me and by the end, I was rolling at my eyes whenever the turn of a page revealed another rough sketch of a hill with a building on it.
Early on, though, before I became thoroughly jaded and was just pushing towards the end, parts of the book did charm me. His discussion of what it’s like to live in a seaside resort town in the winter resonated with me, having lived in a seaside resort town in Japan for a few years. He’s right: “in the winter, it became a cruel irony, a joke that wasn’t funny”. And the list he makes of ridiculous Canadian place names a few pages later is a nice reminder that things I am used to can be totally absurd to someone else. (The list, of course, includes such treasures as Moosejaw and Kootenany.)
One thing I hated that was totally not the author’s fault was the shoddy quality of the book itself. Every British trade paperback I’ve gotten has practically fallen apart on the first reading. The pages are so thin that you can see the words on the verso far too clearly, and the spine cracks no matter how gently you handle the book. I am the kind of person who barely opens books when I read them; I never crack the spine. And yet looking now at the spine of Giro, I see multiple ugly ridges. And the cover that was white when I got it now has a kind of fingerprint patina to it. A book should not look like this after one reading. I never even shoved it in a bag to read on the metro. Boo, British publishing industry! Boo! I’m staying away from your books until they are released in Canada in a better-quality edition.