Pandemic lite

Rolling, rolling, rolling. (CP – David Lipnowski)

A convoy of truckers, dubbed by some the Freedom Rally, is driving to Ottawa to protest vaccine mandates. Thousands of protesters and counter-protesters are expected to welcome them this weekend.

Commentators often express surprise at how the COVID-19 pandemic became so political. I think it’s been a combination of two things. In the first place, the various lockdowns have had a huge negative impact on a lot of people’s lives. As I’ve said before, the fallout from this is going to be profound, and will be felt for years.

Then there’s the problem, if I can call it that, of COVID not being deadly enough. Make no mistake: we were lucky, given the poor response countries around the world had to its outbreak, that it was so mild. If you are under the age of 65 with no underlying medical conditions the infection fatality rate is 0.5% or less. The last time I checked, two-thirds of Canada’s deaths due to COVID were of people over the age of 80. The average life expectancy of a Canadian male is 80.

But it’s because the disease itself has been so mild that people have been given license not to take it seriously and turn it into political theatre (or just plain theatre). When Trump got back from his hospital stay after contracting COVID he originally wanted to stand outside the White House and take his jacket off to reveal a Superman shirt. That’s not being serious. Boris Johnson having parties in violation of his own restrictions on such gatherings is not being serious.

But why should we be serious when COVID was no big deal? Professional athletes like Novak Djokovic and Aaron Rodgers could afford to blow off any rules and regulations on reporting their status and condition both because they’re fabulously wealthy and because even after testing positive for COVID they were still able to physically perform at the highest level.

Look, if COVID had been a particularly lethal disease none of this would be happening. Everyone would be getting vaccinated. But because the stats are what they are people don’t feel personally at risk. Sure they might get sick for a few days, but otherwise what are the consequences?

And there’s the rub. A year ago I said that one of the good things to come out of the pandemic would be what we learned from the experience. Unfortunately, that can cut both ways. We’re lucky that COVID-19 turned out to be so (relatively) harmless. It wasn’t the Black Death, the Spanish Flu of 1918, or even SARS 2003. But given how mild it was I’m afraid that the next time, and there will be a next time, when we may have to deal with something a lot more serious, our immediate response is going to be influenced by our experience with COVID-19 and our skepticism of how the government handled it. A resistance to vaccines will be dug in. This may turn out to be one of the most damaging results of the pandemic.

Down the academy

I had a class there.

Over at Goodreports I’ve added a double review of a couple of books that look at some of the problems currently facing higher education: Stefan Collini’s Speaking of Universities and Robert Boyers’s The Tyranny of Virtue.

This is a subject that interests me. I’ve never been an academic but I know quite a few and when we meet up I often get an earful about what’s happening on campus. It’s not a happy story, especially when it comes to the Humanities. In my review I make the comparison to the dying congregations of mainstream Christian churches. I have friends who are ministers and I’ve always found it interesting how so many of their concerns intersect with what’s happening in higher ed.

Unfortunately, decline brings out the worst in people. Hence all of the bizarre and very nasty moral posturing that has become so prominent on campuses, and the compromises made by the old guard in order to hold on to the perks of privilege. I call this the twitch of the death nerve. Again I feel like my minister friends when they look at the more popular churches today that are filled with (and fueled by) righteousness and anger while deriding “lukewarm Christianity.” As they put it, that’s not the kind of church they used to know, just as today’s university is not the one I attended thirty years ago.

I’m sad to see what’s happening. I wish things were different. But I feel the same way about the Humanities today as I do about the CBC: a good idea that somehow lost its way, to the point where now it scarcely seems worth bothering with let alone supporting. It’s all so disappointing.

When condos go bad

Fascinating story reported by the CBC today about a derelict condo building in one of Toronto’s less fashionable neighbourhoods.

As much as $9 million of debt plus a rapidly deteriorating structure have caught up to York Condominium Corporation No. 82, which runs the 321-unit building in the Jane and Finch neighbourhood. And last week, an Ontario Superior Court judge cited an engineering report that found repairs needed in the 10-storey building over the next year would cost more than $14 million.

Like all condominium corporations, this one is overseen by a small group of owners elected to a board of directors. They have the power under Ontario’s Condominium Act to require all owners to pay for common expenses, no matter the price tag.

So that’s what they did.

On Sept. 2, the corporation sent letters to all owners informing them they had 15 days to pay a special assessment ranging from $30,000 to $42,500 per unit depending on its size — on top of monthly maintenance fees of about $800.

The total $11.2 million raised would be used to repay loans and chip away at a list of 70 repairs ranging from replacing plumbing to upgrading elevators to restoring the party room that’s been shuttered for the past 15 years, the letter said.

Apparently the total bill for repairs will be over $14 million. It’s a story that made me think of the collapse of the condo building in Surfside, Florida last year. It doesn’t sound like there’s any solution to a problem this large. What really shocked me though is that the resident they interviewed was paying a whopping $900 a month in condo fees to live in a “dangerous and dilapidated” building. This is insane, and highlights how poor people in bad situations can’t get ahead.

Meanwhile, residents, many of them seniors, are protesting the special assessment. But as at Surfside, this is pretty much their only option. You can blame lots of people for letting things get to this point, but they’ve made their bed and are going to have to lie, or die, in it.

Maigret: Maigret Goes to School

In my notes on the previous Maigret novel, Maigret’s Mistake, I started off by mentioning the fact that there are recurring characters in the series. One of these is the innocent man on the run. Such a fugitive even shows up in Maigret’s Mistake, in the form of the deceased’s boyfriend.

In almost every case these guys are just red herrings. In Maigret Goes to School the story is kicked off by another, the village schoolmaster Joseph Gastin, who everyone in the village of Saint-André seems eager to convict for the murder of the village scold. We can be pretty sure he’s innocent though, and he’s soon packed off the district jail while Maigret goes looking for the real killer.

Not a very interesting entry. The mechanics of how the old lady got shot, and who saw it happen, depend on being able to visualize a complicated physical setting. I don’t know if a map or drawing would have helped. Once again the people of the village close ranks and it’s up to Maigret to somehow pierce their defensive shell. Once again he feels personally challenged, this time by the deputy mayor.

There he was, planted in the middle of the village like a malicious god who knew everything that happened inside people’s heads and homes, enjoying the show put on for him in solitary pleasure.

He saw Maigret more as an equal than as an enemy.

“You’re a very shrewd man,” he seemed to say. “You pass for a champion at your game. In Paris, you find out everything anyone tries to hide from you.

“Only I’m a shrewd man, too. And here, I’m the one who knows.

“Try! Play your game. Question people. Worm their secrets out of them.

“We’ll see if you ever figure anything out!”

But in the end it’s not as hard as all that.

Maigret index

The Rule of Ten, again

In Revolutions I made a reference to something I like to think of as the Rule of Ten, which I’d first put forward in an earlier essay. Here’s what I said:

Several years ago, in an essay I wrote for Canadian Notes & Queries, I made the point that literary talent typically burns brightly for a decade: “Most writers – not all, but most – are, as Faulkner once put it, ‘hot’ for only a little while. Faulkner himself went through this phase in the 1930s. Hemingway in the 1920s. It usually lasts about ten years.” This was, it seemed to me, such an obvious observation it scarcely needed elaboration. If any were needed, Robert McCrum supplied it when he echoed my thoughts in the pages of the Guardian:

“The truth about most so-called literary careers is that they last 10 years, if you’re lucky. Look at Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Joseph Conrad. They all had “careers,” but when you look more closely at the trajectory of literary success, you find that its parabola describes, at best, a decade of creativity. Austen had completed the drafts of her greatest books by the age of 30. Dickens’s supreme decade was 1850 (David Copperfield) to 1860-61 (Great Expectations). With Conrad, Heart of Darkness came out in 1899. An astonishing decade (Nostromo; Secret Agent etc.) followed. But after 1909, there’s really only Under Western Eyes, and nothing else of equal stature. Shakespeare clinches this argument. Hamlet was probably written in 1600, after an extraordinary year in which . . . he also wrote As You Like It, Julius Caesar and Henry V. Thereafter, all the great tragedies appeared in an astoundingly short span. By the end of that decade he was done. The Tempest was given at court in November 1611.”

Are there exceptions to the Rule of Ten? Of course. Alice Munro may be one, though even here, I would argue, there has been some significant dropping off. But the exceptions prove the general rule, and it’s one that holds much the same everywhere in the English-speaking world. One only has to glance across the pond to see a stable of at-one-time major authors – Rushdie, McEwan, Amis – who, since the millennium (at the latest), have done very, very little to burnish their credentials for entry into the literary pantheon. In the U.S., the record has been just as grim. Every publishing season duly brings forth the latest offerings of that nation’s aging literary lions. But who, aside from someone needing to fill a book column, could even begin to get excited by anything written by Philip Roth after The Human Stain? Anything written by Thomas Pynchon after . . . The Crying of Lot 49? . . . no, let’s be nice and say Mason & Dixon. Anything written by Don DeLillo after Underworld, or (and here I know I’m treading on holy ground, but someone needs to say it), anything written by Cormac McCarthy after Blood Meridian? Yes, the big awards continued to pile up. And yes, newspapers continued to run fawning interviews with these titans, reviews gushing over any fresh evidence of their genius. But this was only to prolong a farce that, in all of these cases, had gone on more than long enough. As though, faced with the spectacle of aging, punch-drunk, and pot-bellied boxers coming out of retirement only to stagger on unsteady legs while being clobbered around the ring and into dementia, we should have turned and looked away, saddened and a bit sick at the pathetic spectacle.

This past week I had occasion to think again about the Rule of Ten as two examples came up. In Claire Tomalin’s new biography The Young H. G. Wells: Changing the World she focuses on the young Wells both because the formation of a great writer is always more interesting than their decline, and because all of Wells’ major work was done by 1910.

Given that his first novel, The Time Machine, had come out in 1895 this gave him an effective career of fifteen years. Close enough, and I think if you took out Tono-Bungay (1909) you’d have a good argument for making the cut-off date 1905, thus satisfying the Rule of Ten pretty neatly.

The second item was a Robert Gottlieb piece in the New York Times on Sinclair Lewis, “The Novelist Who Saw Middle America as It Really Was.” In Lewis’s case the Rule was strictly in operation, with his vital years running from Main Street (1920) to Dodsworth (1929). Like Wells, Lewis would go on being a celebrity author and keep publishing for decades, but nothing much would come of it. Lewis in particular was a wreck at the end, the sort of sad spectacle I mentioned as being the general rule.

I think everyone is aware of the Rule of Ten, including authors themselves, though it’s not something they like to talk about. It’s interesting that one workaround that has been effected in our own time is for bestselling authors to effectively become brands. This allows for the same names to dominate the bestseller lists not just year after year but decade after decade. Testimony, I think, to the power of the brand in our economy, since in most if not every case the authors in question are far removed from their best work, and in some instances aren’t even the authors of the books being published under their name.

But sales are one thing and critical reception another. As I said five years ago: “Yes, the big awards continued to pile up. And yes, newspapers continued to run fawning interviews with these titans, reviews gushing over any fresh evidence of their genius.” Why? Doesn’t everything we know about how these things play out suggest we should ignore writers at this point, just as Tomalin wisely skips the later Wells? Wouldn’t it make more sense to move on?

Maigret: Maigret’s Mistake

While the Maigret novels have lots of recurring themes and character types, Simenon kept them fresh with a good mix of complex psychological case studies. A good example is the monstrous Dr. Gouin in Maigret’s Mistake. In general terms he’s another of Simenon’s spoiled man-babies, waited upon by codependent women. But in being a world-famous surgeon he magnifies this, becoming a kind of cult leader to a harem whose members compete with one another to serve and protect him. He’s also sexually insatiable in a passionless way, which is the very quality that gets him into trouble.

The contest between Maigret and Gouin is a similarly bloodless affair. Like Maigret, Gouin is a God-the-Father figure, but his arrogance sets him apart. Maigret sees himself, at least in this book, as more like the Son, descending to the human level so that he can empathize with the people he’s investigating. Gouin wants to remain above humanity and is only interested in using others, in particular homing in on people who want to be used.

Not a particularly gripping entry in the series, and I thought it jumped the rails a bit in the final pages. I don’t believe in Madame Gouin turning against her husband like that. But then jealousy might have won out over her martyr complex.

Maigret’s mistake? I think it was drinking a glass of marc in the early going. Marc is pomace brandy, or so I’m told, and once Maigret starts a case drinking one particular type of alcohol – calvados, beer, red wine, or whisky – he feels he has to keep drinking the same until the case is wrapped up. A curious but endearing superstition. But he doesn’t even like marc! Poor Maigret.

Maigret index

Stats 2021

One of the interesting things about blogging is the availability of stats detailing how many people are visiting your site, on what days and what time of the day, how long they’re staying, what they’re reading, where they’re located, and lots of other stuff. So since we’re kicking off a new year I thought I’d look back and share a bit of this here.

At Alex on Film in 2021 these were the ten most visited posts:

Little Children (2006)
The Gore Gore Girls (1972)
I Spit On Your Grave (1978)
Deep Throat (1972)
The Human Centipede (First Sequence) (2009)
Candyman (1992)
Behind the Green Door (1972)
Visitor Q (2001)
Showgirls (1995)
Her Last Fling (1976)

I think this is mostly self-explanatory. Cult films and porn rule. Except for the continuing dominance of my review of Little Children. I can’t figure that out. It isn’t linked to anywhere.

And here are the ten most read reviews at Goodreports:

The Road
A Perfect Night to Go to China
1491
An Impalpable Certain Rest
How to Become a Monster
Madame Bovary’s Ovaries
The Blind Assassin
Why Nations Fail
Who Killed Jackie Bates?
The Age of Movies and The Good, the Bad and the Multiplex

Nothing too surprising here. Nice to see a number of Canadian titles making the list too. I’ll take that as an inspiration to try to do more in that department in the coming year.

‘Tis the season

It’s the most wonderful time of the year.

Over at Alex on Film I seem to have made it a bit of a holiday tradition to look at some less conventional, and usually very bad, Christmas movies. I kept at it this year with the Bad Santa movies and Fatman. Going back a few years, here are some of the other lumps of coal Hollywood has been leaving in our stockings:

Black Christmas (1974)
Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)
Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2 (1987)
Bad Santa (2003)
Krampus (2016)
Better Watch Out (2016)
Bad Santa 2 (2016)
Black Christmas (2019)
Fatman (2020)

Lost in transit, or: Why can’t I buy a coat online?

It’s hard to miss the way that COVID-19 has transformed the economy. The delivery sector in particular has become a huge employer. No matter what time of day, or what neighbourhood I’m walking through, I see at least a couple of vans (often rentals) buzzing about or parked in the street, with delivery drivers running up to porches and leaving packages.

Of course, with so much demand, and with this many new delivery drivers entering the workforce, I’m sure there’s been some sub-optimum hiring going on. This has led to a few problems.

About three months ago I bought a winter coat online from a large retailer. It was a good price and came with free home delivery. After several weeks it still hadn’t arrived and I got in touch with customer service. According to their records the coat had been delivered. I assured them that it had not. Nor was this a case of the infamous porch pirates. I live in a sort of cul-de-sac, and no one has ever seen a porch pirate in these parts. Plus I’m home most of the time during the day, and receive parcels nearly every day. I’ve never had a parcel go missing before and I’m pretty sure I would have known if one had been delivered.

Most of my parcels though are books. People don’t steal books. That’s because nobody wants them. But who doesn’t want a new coat? When I called both the retailer and the third-party seller who had sold the coat they expressed a sort of weariness. Again? “This happens a lot,” one representative told me. I received a full refund.

As an aside, I was interested that many of the people I told this story to said that delivery drivers were taking photos of the parcels sitting on the customer’s porch as proof of delivery. This made no sense to me. What’s to stop a driver from putting the parcel on the porch, taking a picture, then picking the parcel back up and taking it with them? Only a porch camera I guess. Which would make the driver’s “proof” of delivery redundant.

A couple of weeks later I thought I’d try again. I ordered another coat (slightly different, but still a good deal) and instead of opting for home delivery said that I would pick it up in-store. After a week of tracking the shipment online it disappeared somewhere between the local shipping station and the store. I went to the store. A helpful sales rep told me that this is happening “a lot.” The coat was gone and they told me there was little hope it would ever be found. I would have thought they would have had better tracking, but after three weeks of searching and updates being emailed to me the retailer finally admitted defeat and again gave me a full refund. Officially the coat had gone from being “stuck in transit” to “lost in transit.”

This made me wonder just how much product is being “redistributed” through the delivery chain these days. Buying two coats in three months and having them both go missing may not be a large sample size to go on, but how representative is it? Both times I spoke to multiple customer service representatives who seemed weary of what was clearly a large and ongoing problem. I think the numbers may be huge.

In any event, a couple of people are getting nice new winter coats for Christmas. I probably shouldn’t try ordering another, but now I’m curious to see how it might turn out. Could a third time be the charm? I’ll let you know.